As we’re just coming through the off-election year July 4 break, it’s a good time to examine the progression of the current Senate and House political picture. Today, we look at the Senate landscape.
As we know, the current Senate’s party division stands at 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, with the GOP “renting” the New Jersey seat until voters in the Oct. 16 special election choose a permanent replacement for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). Though Gov. Chris Christie (R) appointed Republican Jeff Chiesa to serve in an interim capacity, the fact that the new senator didn’t choose to run for the seat leaves the GOP prospects to also-ran candidates who don’t have a realistic chance of defeating the eventual Democratic nominee. This being the case, in order for the Republicans to overtake the Democratic majority, a conversion swing of six seats still is necessary.
Of the 35 Senate seats that comprise the 2014 election cycle, we can segment the competition into three groups of three and two groups of two, for a grand total of 13 political situations that will determine the new majority’s complexion. Right now, the remaining 22 campaigns appear to be safe for the incumbent senator, or his party in the case of open New Jersey and Nebraska (Republican Sen. Mike Johanns retiring).
The three groups of three contain the nine Democratic seats that are fielding varying degrees of competition. All should be strong conversion opportunities, but only six realistically appear that way today.
First Group of Three: D to R
The first group contains the seats most likely to move from Democrat to Republican. The open contests in West Virginia (Sen. Jay Rockefeller retiring) and South Dakota (Sen. Tim Johnson retiring) look to be locks to move Republican in the persons of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV-2) and former Gov. Mike Rounds (R-SD). Democrats have yet to recruit a West Virginia candidate and they are already into the second tier in South Dakota. The third state in this category is the open Montana seat (Sen. Max Baucus retiring) where Republican prospects are growing. Though he could quickly up and enter the race without any pre-announcement fanfare, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is looking less like a senatorial candidate. If he decides against making a federal bid, then expect freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT-AL) to immediately announce for the Senate and become the man to beat.
Second Group: The Critical Group
The second group of three is critically important. The Democratic incumbents are vulnerable to Republican challengers, yet each is politically strong in his or her own right. Still, the political mathematics cut against them in their particular states and they are left to rely on personal popularity to carry the day for them rather than favorable voting trends, particularly in a mid-term election.
Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu will face tough re-election challenges in states that are almost exclusively electing Republicans since the trio’s last election victory in 2008. Begich probably will face Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R); all seem convinced that freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR-4) will challenge Sen. Pryor, though the congressman himself has made no such announcement; and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA-6) has formally declared his candidacy opposite Sen. Landrieu. Though it is probable that all three incumbents would win re-election right now, it is these states that represent “ground zero” of the 2014 Senate campaign cycle.
Third Group: The Dems Bright Spots
The next group of three show some promise for Republicans but are regarded as major candidate recruiting disappointments. Sen. Kay Hagan (NC) should be at the top of the vulnerability list, but she’s not. Republicans didn’t draw a top-tier challenge candidate, but we’ll see if state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ campaign can develop. Considering the legislature’s poor approval ratings, Tillis has an even steeper hill to climb to position himself for victory. The open Democratic seats in Iowa (Sen. Tom Harkin retiring) and Michigan (Sen. Carl Levin retiring) did not draw the challengers Republican leaders desired, as both Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA-3) and Mike Rogers (R-MI-8) chose to continue their House careers. Democrats are in the driver’s seat in all three of these races. Realistically, if the GOP is to wrest the Senate majority away from the Democrats at least one of these states will have to fall.
1st Group of Two
The first group of two features campaigns that should be on the board, but aren’t. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) might draw a challenge from former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, but New Hampshire voters so far don’t appear open to his carpetbagging ploy. Remembering that Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), a former nationally known comedian, won the closest of all 2008 senatorial elections, one would figure he’d be near the top of the 2014 vulnerability list. Not so. Right now, Sen. Franken looks to be cruising to re-election.
2nd Group of Two
The final group of two are Republican defense seats. If there is a situation that could fall prey to the primary debacles that have plagued the party in the last two cycles, it is the open Georgia seat (Sen. Saxby Chambliss retiring). With five strong Republican candidates already in the race, an August run-off is inevitable. This gives the likely Democratic consensus candidate, Michelle Nunn the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D), ample time to construct a viable general election campaign.
Democrats were successful in recruiting their number-one prospect to challenge Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced her candidacy last week. This will be a bruising affair, and while Sen. McConnell is the clear favorite, he can take nothing for granted.
Of these 13 seats, the GOP must win any combination that totals eight in order to command a bare 51-49 seat majority, the smallest margin possible because Democrats control the 50-50 split in the person of Vice-President Joe Biden (D). Today, they are at least three wins short of the mandatory eight.