The perfect storm of an unpopular president and a Senate map showing Democrats playing defense in the most competitive states suggests Republicans may be on the verge of reclaiming the majority in the upper chamber for the first time in eight years.
According to the latest Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball summary from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Democrats hold the 10 Senate seats most likely to switch parties in 2014.
Democrats currently hold 55 seats to the GOP’s 45. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest control from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Crystal Ball suggests four seats are significantly tilting toward the Republicans.
The one lock is in South Dakota, where Democrat Sen Tim Johnson is retiring. Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds is expected to win the seat easily. Three other Democratic seats are said to be leaning Republican. Democrat Jay Rockefeller is retiring in West Virginia, and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is considered a solid favorite.
Two incumbent Democrats are also said to be in big trouble. New Montana Sen. John Walsh is facing a stiff challenge from freshman Rep. Steve Daines, and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor is bracing for an uphill fight against Rep. Tom Cotton.
If Republicans were to win all four of those seats without losing any they currently hold, they would have 49 of the 51 seats they need to regain the majority. The good news for the GOP is the next six seats considered most likely to flip are also held by Democrats. The bad news is that three are considered toss-ups and the other three still lean Democratic.
Three incumbents – Kay Hagan, D-N.C.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; and Mary Landrieu, D-La. – are fighting for their political lives in the toss-up races. Open seats in Michigan and Iowa still tilt Democratic, as does Sen. Mark Udall’s race in Colorado.
Since the most recent projection was issued, former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., launched an exploratory committee toward a likely Senate bid against New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. If he runs, the 11 most vulnerable seats would be held by Democrats.
So are Republicans poised for a midterm rout, or do these projections show the party still has a lot of work to do to get to 51 members in the Senate?
“They’ve got a considerable amount of work to do. One of the important things that Republicans are going to have to focus on is primaries in a number of states. Republicans have nominated some poor Senate candidates over the past couple of cycles, candidates that probably prevented them from winning seats that they otherwise should have won,” said Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik.
Kondik said key GOP primaries to watch include North Carolina and Iowa, as well as the crowded primary for an open GOP-held seat in Georgia.
Republicans are clearly hoping to make many of these races a referendum on Obamacare. Kondik said the party may need a little more “oomph” than just that one issue.
“It seems like the Affordable Care Act may already be baked into the cake in terms of the president’s approval and the standing of these various candidates,” he said. “In order to get across the finish line, Republicans may have to roll out some sort of new legislative initiative or come up with some other issues to hammer upon.”
Still, he said the political realities suggest the GOP has a real shot at the majority.
“It’s really good to be the party that doesn’t hold the White House in a midterm year. That factor in and of itself, plus the fact that President Obama’s not particularly popular, those two things together tell us the Republicans should do well. You almost don’t need to know anything more than that,” said Kondik, who noted the Senate map is another asset but not a guarantee of success.
“Actually turning those into pickups for Republicans (is no guarantee). There’s only one, South Dakota, that I think is really rock solid at this point. The potential is there, but there’s also the potential that Republicans could just fritter it away,” he said.
A really big year for the GOP could see several tight races turn into a national wave. Kondik said there are certain indicators to look for late in the campaign if a nationwide surge is in the works.
“I would look to see if the president’s approval rating is getting worse. I would also look at the generic House poll. It’s a poll asked in national surveys as to whether people want a Democrat or a Republican in their local House race,” said Kondik, noting that Democrats have a small lead in those polls, but they don’t tell the full story.
“Generally speaking, the poll has a built-in Democratic bias. When you look at it, you can subtract a few points from the Democratic total and add it to the Republican. If Republicans have even a small lead in that metric, I think it would be an indication there’s a big sentiment behind Republicans to control Congress,” he said.
In total, 14 of the 16 most vulnerable seats are held by Democrats. The two GOP seats to watch are in Georgia and Kentucky. Kondik believes Republicans are likely to hold both but he said the Georgia seat could largely hinge upon who emerges from a tough Republican primary. In Kentucky, he said Republican leader Mitch McConnell appears to be cruising to the GOP nomination but faces a tough general election campaign against Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Kondik said Democrats have a track record of doing well in state legislative races and even in gubernatorial elections. Nonetheless, he expects McConnell to survive for one main reason.
“In federal races in a state where President Obama’s approval is probably somewhere in the low 30s, it’s just really hard to see how a Democrat could win a Senate race in that kind of environment,” he said. “So even if Mitch McConnell is unpopular, at the end of the day I think it seems likely that a lot of people who may not even like him decide to vote for him because they want to vote for a Republican in their Senate race.”
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