Senate Landscape Portends GOP Gains,But Control A Stretch

The November 2014 elections are 21 months away but clues are already emerging with regard to the Senate landscape.

Republicans would like to complete what they had envisioned starting at this time two years ago; depriving the Democrats of their majority. But a combination of bad candidates, misstatements, and climate actually set the GOP back two seats, so that Democrats now actually hold 55 seats in the Senate. Despite that setback, the Democrats would still appear to be at a mathematical disadvantage. They are entering the cycle with 21 seats on the line, compared to 14 for the GOP. But facts are stubborn things which, as 2012 reminded us, could easily go out the window.

Going into 2014, the premise for GOP optimism is thus. There hasn’t been a President in recent times not impacted by the six year itch. Larry Sabato pegs the average loss for a President’s party at six seats. That would seem on par to create a 1986 or 2006 like scenario, when the Republicans lost eight and six Senate seats respectively. But the atmosphere could also resemble 1998, when a strong economy and the Monica Lewinsky scandal created a wash in the Senate (the Democrats netted five House seats)?

So history is one guide. Emotional and base issues are another, which if I had to call it now, would say that is a far more likely indicator. Gun control obviously looms large, and the question is, will it motivate one side or the other? The answers to these questions will become clear as the election season progresses, but the landscape strongly suggests that while Republican gains are likely, taking control of the upper chamber is still a stretch.

Now to the pivotal races.

Most Democrats have abandoned all but the feintest hopes of holding the seat Jay Rockefeller is giving up in West Virginia. Rockefeller held the seat uneventfully for 5 terms, but culturally and demographically, the state has moved away from the Democrats like no other. Michael Dukakis carried the state but Obama drew just 36%. The party hoped a bloody primary might damage Capito but she seems unlikely to face one. They hope a big name can emulate the success of Joe Manchin (like his former aide Carte Goodwin), but polls show Capito well on top.

After Rockefeller, the next most endangered seat is Louisiana. Many Dems believe that the Landrieu name (her father was Mayor of New Orleans and her brother is the current occupant),will carry her through. But that means little o folks in the norther part of the state. Landrieu will tout her ability to deliver on Appropriations. Landrieu has never taken more than 52%, and since ’08, the last time she appeared on the ballot, Katrina has dwindled the party base further. If the mood toward the national party in the state is as biting, the math might not add up to a 4th term.

In Alaska, the Begich name is holy, and throughout the whole state. One reason is that the Democratic Senator’s father, Nick Begich, held Alaska’s lone House seat before being killed in a plane crash in 1972. Begich’s ability to build up an Alaska-centric voting record has paid dividends. His approvals are strong and he leads even his strongest potential foes by comfortable margins. But it’s Alaska and a Democrat can’t get to comfortable. Begich led indicted Senator Ted Stevens by a wide margin following his conviction, but took the seat by just 1%, a reminder that the “Last Frontier” is bound to bring plenty of uncertainty til the end.

South Dakota is the wild card. Tim Johnson hasn’t said whether he’ll seek a 4th term. Should he decline (and his low fundraising suggests that’s an option), popular ex-Governor Mike Rounds, already waiting in the wings, would be a shoe-in. A Rounds win would emulate a duo of neighboring ex-Governors to the south (Nebraska) and the north( North Dakota), as Mike Johanns and John Hoeven are now safely ensconced in the Senate. If he decides to stay, the contest will be, as I like to say,a true tossup and then some. Those who remember Johnson’s battle with John Thune may say he cleared his biggest hurdle.

A less promising open seat for the GOP is in Iowa, where Tom Harkin retirement creates the “Hawkeye State’s” first open Senate seat since Harold Hughes retired in 1974. In a swing state, that means opportunity, right. It’s where the establishment and Tea-Party come in, and how it’s resolved will determine the level of competitiveness. Well, maybe. Tempestuous Congressman Steve King has made clear that his Senate decision will not have to do with outside pressure (Karl Rove), and that has Democrats salivating at the bit.

If the state’s other Republican Congressman, Tom Latham is the nominee, he’d have a legitimate shot. Redistricting has enabled him to represent 59 of Iowa’s 99 counties over his 20 year tenure, and not all of it has been politically friendly. But Iowa Ds are squarely behind Congressman Bruce Braley, a charismatic four-term Congressman who members of his conference have seen as a rising-star since he came to Congress.

Arkansas has potential to become a late-breaking headache for Democrats.Some publications have rated Mark Pryor’s race as a tossup with only a slight Democratic lean. With Pryor the sole Democrat in the delegation (before the 2010 election there was only one Republican), that may well be the case once the election gets underway. But it’s a little premature as of yet. Still, in a state hat may have drifted away from the national party like no other over the past five years, Pryor’s odds of securing a third term are far from certain.

Finally, Montana. Max Baucus recently got his first opponent, and it’s a fairly credible one in former St.Senator Corey Stapleton. Baucus has money, a boatload of money. And as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, there’s plenty more where that came from.But while Montana’s junior Senator, Jon Tester, launched an assiduous, Montana-based appeal to win a second term in a very hostile environment, Baucus has been in Washington 40 years. And while he’s favored now, his longevity made count for as much as against him.

Other Democratic Senators, particularly Dick Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey may also quit, but in deep “blue” states, most of the action would be in the Democratic primaries.

Besides protecting their most vulnerable, Ds may also try to cushion any loses by aiming for at least one GOP held seat. The opportunities are few. Only Susan Collins sits in a state Obama carried and folks on both sides are not convinced that she’ll run again. If she does, she’ll face a primary hurdle. But in a general she’d be unbeatable.

Beating Mitch McConnell would be worth a couple of seats for Democrats, and the Minority Leader’s 37% approval (in a PPP poll) is the lowest of all 100 Senators. It’s a reason Democrats and Tea-Partiers are uniting with beating McConnell. But top-candidate for the moment, Ashley Judd, . Furthermore, if there’s one thing McConnell has displayed throughout his 30 year tenure, it’s that he is a shrewd tactician and a masterful fundraiser who has long defied attempts to send him packing.

Ultimately, Georgia may be the Democrats best hope. Amid uncertain primary prospects, Saxby Chambliss is retiring, but the ideological nomination battle will proceed. Anyone can emerge from a near certain runoff, but Democrats are giddy about the fact that it may be Paul Broun. They also are trying to woo Savannah area Congressman John Barrow, a proven survivor in GOP districts, to jump in.

The Obama era has halted the GOP slide in Georgia (his 47% in ’08 dipped to just 45.4% four years later). Not all is “Peachy” for Dems yet, as the GOP is still several steps ahead. But the stars aligning may be a true test.

A number of other Senators elected in 2008 bare watching, (Franken, Hagan, and potentially Shaheen), but if the national mood is going to be more like 1998, they should be fine. If it degenerates to 2006 levels, they — and as a result the Senate Democratic majority, will be in serious jeopardy. May not be known. At this point in 2009, Russ Feingold was on no one’s list to lose and Blanche Lincoln was on few. Both got caught in a perfect storm.

In other words, at this point, the odds seem good for Democrats to hold a slimmer majority, but a majority nonetheless. But the cycle is in it’s infancy, which means even lifting up your chickens, much less counting them, would be truly unwise.

Author: SCOTT CRASS

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