The GOP has been struggling to recapture the Senate majority for nearly a decade. Now, the sixth year itch, a plethora of vulnerable red-state Democrats, and Obamacare’s unpopularity appear to be forming a perfect storm – if the Republicans want it.
Six years ago, the Democrats were riding high: after winning the Senate back two years prior amidst scandals and the Iraq War, they improved their gains greatly, coming within a seat of a supermajority (which then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter happily granted just a few months later). This was accomplished with a mix of reasonably close overthrows of sitting Republicans (Sununu, Stevens, Coleman, and Smith), a wider rebuke of another (Dole), and picking up three seats vacated by retiring GOPers (Warner, Domenici, and Allard). Despite holding several seats in Republican territory, the popularity of incumbents Pryor, Landrieu, Baucus, Johnson and Rockefeller assured the Democrats that the Great Blue Wave would see no consolation prizes for the Republicans.
My, how things have changed.
Red State Democrats: an endangered species?
When the GOP flubbed the 2012 races in North Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana, it seemed as if strong Democratic personalities still had a shot despite the growing unpopularity of the President in the red states. So long as the GOP picked either delusional or lackluster candidates, being a Democrat in a state that would break hard for Romney wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. One could hope for an Akin to rant about magical uteri, or a Berg to win their party’s nomination and, well, apparently forget to campaign.
Again, things have certainly changed: of the seven Romney states represented with a Democratic senator up for re-election next year, three feature open contests due to retirements. Senators Baucus, Rockefeller, and Johnson, who won overwhelming victories in 2008, have decided to call it quits. Current polling in Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota indicates the Republicans are positioned well to pick up all three. There is always the possibility that the GOP picks a poor candidate to run, but so far Daines, Rounds and Capito appear to be high-caliber candidates facing weaker Democratic opponents.
Of the four remaining Red State Democrats, one is polling underwater, two are in tight horse races, and the last seems only to be benefiting from the lack of a defined opponent. Senator Mark Pryor is currently trailing Tom Cotton, watching his personal favorability collapse along with Obamacare and the virulent reddening of his home state, Arkansas. Senator Landrieu has seen her fortunes crash as Obamacare’s has, though she still edges her announced Republican competition in polling; and Senator Hagan is facing a tossup race against nearly half a dozen possible Republican opponents. Mark Begich, who ousted Ted Stevens in a nailbiter in 2008, is polling ahead of hypothetical GOP candidates, but his state’s’ political makeup and the unpopularity of Obamacare make his current edge a small one.
More Vacancies, More Headaches
Long-time Democratic Senators Tom Harkin and Carl Levin of Iowa and Michigan have also decided to call it quits, compounding the problem of maintaining a majority for the Democrats. While both states went to President Obama, both saw comfortable wins for Republican governors in 2010, both Republican governors are enjoying favorable numbers heading into 2014, both open Senate races are polling tight, and both feature underwater ratings for Obamacare. Without any additional seats, the Democrats are behind, even, or only slightly ahead in nine races- three more than the Republicans need to win a majority.
Before the great gun grab and backfire, Governor Hickenlooper was enjoying enviable approval ratings. Indeed, the Colorado Democrats seemed poised to cement their state’s cyanification. Senator Mark Udall shared in this revelry with positive approval ratings and few real opponents in sight. Fast forward to the end of 2013, and a very different picture emerges: recalls slim the state senate Democratic majority to just one, a resignation tactic is employed to avoid losing that ahead of a third recall, the governor’s approval ratings crash into the forties, and Udall’s, perhaps a side effect of this pushback, Obamacare, or both, sink back to earth with the rest of his party’s fortunes. Leading all his potential challengers so far in polling, he is still favored to win, but so was Senator Feingold at this point in 2009/10. Time will tell whether his fortunes reset or worsen.
Senators Franken and Shaheen currently enjoy favorable head-to-head polling against a score of potential Republican contenders, but their recent actions regarding Obamacare, particularly the individual mandate, demonstrate none are taking their re-election lightly. Contradicting a partisan poll showing his numbers holding, they may be some potentially choppy seas for Franken, with his, the Presidents, and Obamacare’s approval ratings all underwater in a St Cloud poll released in November. Ex-Senator Scott Brown is expected now to throw his hat in the ring in the New Hampshire race, and the scant polling pitching him against Shaheen indicates a potential horserace.
Senator Merkley has been enjoying positive numbers from partisan pollsters, but appears to be keeping his lookout. The lack of non-partisan firms makes this race a lot tougher to peg, so we have to weigh the partisan makeup of the state, the lack of any solid opponent, and his recent actions when determining where he lands. I have his seat as moderately Democratic: he ousted the incumbent by a close margin considering how heavily his state went to President Obama, his recent behavior regarding Obamacare tells me he has major concerns with the state of the law, and the continuing debacle that is Cover Oregon means delays and failures remain a local issue.
Et tu, Virginia?
In my last piece for the Federalist, I gave the Old Dominion a pretty hard kick in the butt, and with a moderately popular senator like Mark Warner seemingly immune to Obamacare thus far, you may be wondering why it isn’t listed as “safe Democrat”. Well first, it’s Virginia: the GOP won’t let go of it, even if it is becoming something of a White Whale for them. Somebody big will be tempted to throw their hat in the ring and force the Democrats to defend it, fruitless as that decision may ultimately be. As the sun rises in the East, so do Republican hopes of turning things around in the Old Dominion.
Personally, I don’t think this is a bad idea: the more seats the Republicans play for, the thinner they can spread the Democrats. So long as money, manpower and time is still being devoted to the thirteen seats more likely to flip, and to protecting the few vulnerable ones the GOP has (see the next section), no harm, no foul. Ed Gillespie certainly seems to be entertaining the thought. So far, the Republicans are looking good at retaking the Senate, so why not just project a flip as the initial call?
The GOP is the GOP
Conservatives reading right now are still nodding/shaking your head, but it’s true: the Republican party has had a pretty awful record winning so-called “winnable” races over the last few cycles. A mix of arrogant “next in lines”, delusional “on-a-mission” types, dated tactics, poorly-timed retirements, data drought, and a widening gap between the “establishment” and the grassroots have formed the perfect tar pit for potential campaigns. Call it a fear of success or a talent for failure, but whatever it is the Republicans have the stink of it from too many screwups to list. Winning six senate seats out of thirteen isn’t too big of a task, but it also isn’t a walk in the park. Campaigns should be a mixture of a national message with local focus: personalities matter as much as Obamacare’s approval numbers. With this in mind, here are the three Republican-held seats to watch for signs of GOP goofdom:
Maine. Simply put, if Susan Collins doesn’t retire, the seat stays in Republican hands. If she does, it becomes at best a tossup. Since she’s given no indication of retirement, but there’s always that possibility, her seat is the least endangered of the three to watch.
Georgia. Michelle Nunn is hoping her family name will give her the edge to flip one of the two open Republican seats. Considering the Republican lean of the state and the unpopularity of Obamacare here, she’s mainly benefiting from name recognition and positive numbers from partisan firms. Her name and the numbers makes this seat a little closer for the GOP than they would like, but it remains moderately Republican. With an open race, there is the chance for a fringe or sour candidate to break through, turning off donors or grassroots volunteers. Primary voters should research all potential choices well, and so long as the losing candidates fall quickly in line behind the winner, potential bullets are dodged and the seat stays red.
Kentucky. McConnell is in the fight of his political life- if you don’t include his successful narrow ouster of incumbent Democrat Walter Huddleston in 1984, his close re-election over Harvey Sloane in 1990, or his close re-election just six years ago. He has proven himself to be a tough campaigner and a survivor, but recent acrimony between himself and various conservative groups jeopardize that more than any primary challenge or general election. I give him the edge, even after a potentially bruising primary, because he’s had many close calls but has enjoyed a reddening state through his career. The status of this particular race depends just as much on McConnell’s behavior towards the more conservative sections of his party as it does any “foolhardy ouster attempt” that insiders wish to wag their fingers at: he needs grassroots activists to help him through. His polling numbers are bad, but if the fortunes of the Democrats continue to worsen nationally, there is only so much money they will throw at trying to unseat the Minority Leader, tempting as that head might be.
Lots of Words, Here’s The Beef: Republicans gain four seats with two more a coin toss
So you’ve chewed through a lot of fat and you’re looking to get to the meat of the matter. Congratulations. Here are the 17 non-safe seats with their ratings and why:
Montana: likely R pickup. Baucus bailed, Daines is leading big, Schweitzer stayed out.
West Virginia: likely R pickup. Rockefeller retires, Capito captures an early lead, Obamacare deeply unpopular in a reddening state.
South Dakota: lean R pickup. Johnson out, Rounds leads, Pressler may try to spoil.
Arkansas: lean R pickup. Pryor is praying for a miracle as he trails in the polls, incumbency has some advantage but Cotton is consolidating the votes he needs.
Michigan: tossup. Levin leaves, Peters and Land trade places in the polls.
North Carolina: tossup. Hagan is facing a coin-flip race against all potential Republican challengers, so this ranking may be the most favorable to her as we track it.
Iowa: lean D. Harkin leaves an opening for the GOP: Democrat Braley leads all potential GOP challengers but faces an electorate that despises Obamacare and has turned against the President.
Alaska: lean D. Begich enjoys an uncertain Republican field, but won his seat against a seriously embattled incumbent and has to answer for his vote on Obamacare in a state whose voters oppose it.
Louisiana: lean D. Landrieu has been throwing the kitchen sink of solutions at the Obamacare anchor tied round her neck, benefiting so far from a limited, divided GOP field with the potential of a runoff race (Democrats are 4-1 in statewide runoffs).
Colorado: moderately D. Udall’s poll numbers have crashed from highs, but he still leads all potential Republican challengers.
New Hampshire: moderately D. Shaheen enjoys wide leads over announced candidates in the polls, but the potential of Scott Brown and a midterm electorate keeps her on her toes.
Minnesota: moderately D. Franken has avoided facing any top-tier Republican candidates and enjoys a big war chest, but his approval ratings (and the President’s) have nose-dived.
Oregon: moderately D. Merkley won a close race in 2008 and so far faces no stiff competition, but Cover Oregon’s failures turns a national issue into a local one.
Virginia: likely D. Warner so far faces only token opposition and enjoys stronger approval ratings than his colleagues in all of the other states mentioned so far, but the temptation for the GOP to make it a race is there, and with pressure and money, who knows.
Kentucky: lean R. McConnell is facing another close race, but that seems to be his forte.
Georgia: moderately R. Nunn will make a run, but the GOP isn’t going to make that fun, and Republicans hold the edge.
Maine: likely R. Collins stays, the seat is red. She retires, it isn’t. There isn’t much else to add.
Brandon Finnigan has been covering polls and elections at the blog Ace of Spades HQ and on Twitter at @conartcritic since 2010. Between races, he shares his love of art, astronomy, and craft beer with his wife in Southern California.