Between the “sorting out” that took place in the past four elections and a redistricting process that maximized the number of safe seats for both parties—but especially for Republicans—the bulk of the 2014 congressional election action won’t be in the House, but in the Senate. The disproportionate exposure for Senate Democrats is very clear, giving Republicans the opportunity to gain a large number of seats, and potentially the six they need for control of the chamber. However, the same was true last year, when instead of gaining two to four seats, the GOP ended up with a net loss of two. A repeat of that looks extremely unlikely, but whether Republicans are in a position to capitalize on their opportunities remains to be seen.
Two seats will be dispensed with this year: Secretary of State John Kerry’s former seat in Massachusetts—which will be settled June 25—and the seat held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg before his death. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appointed Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican caretaker, pending an Oct. 16 general election that will be mostly a formality. Republicans are now seen as having little chance of retaining the seat. Democrats are also expected to hold the Massachusetts seat, as Rep. Edward Markey seems to have stabilized his once-precarious advantage over his GOP opponent, former Navy SEAL and pilot Gabriel Gomez. Should Democrats win both of these races, the magic number for Republicans to win control of the chamber goes back up to a six, as it was before Lautenberg’s death.
The 2014 Senate math is quite clear. The last time this particular group of seats came up was in the banner Democratic year of 2008. Democrats have 20 seats up for grabs, to just 15 for the GOP, and six of the Democrats’ seats are in states that Mitt Romney won by double-digit margins. Republicans will have just one seat up in a state that President Obama carried: that of Susan Collins in Maine. Although Obama won there by 15 points, if Collins runs, as she is expected to do, she is extremely likely to win. Another metric to watch is last-election winning percentage. Democrats have seven incumbents up who won with 54.9 percent of the vote or less, Republicans just three. Finally, Democrats have five open seats—usually more difficult to defend—to the GOP’s two.
Democrats have four seats up in states that Romney carried by 17 points or more—those of Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia, both of which look very likely to go to Republicans. The two incumbents are also slated for extremely difficult challenges. Then, Democrats have two more seats in states that Romney won by 14 points—Mark Begich’s in Alaska and an open seat in Montana, where Max Baucus is retiring. It’s unclear whether Republicans will end up with a high-quality challenger in Alaska; Democrats have a pretty good shot of holding onto the Montana seat if popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer runs, as he is expected to do. In the last remaining Democratic seat up in a Romney state, Kay Hagan faces a stiff challenge in North Carolina, where Obama lost by 2 points last year after having won narrowly in 2008. Two more Democratic elections to be watched, particularly if the GOP mounts strong challenges, are for the open Michigan seat and the race against Al Franken in Minnesota.
Because 2008 was such a bad year for Republicans, they have very few vulnerable seats left in this class. Democrats have a long shot at picking up Saxby Chambliss’s open seat in Georgia only if Michelle Nunn—daughter of longtime Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn—runs, and, more important, if Republicans nominate an exotic (read: self-destructive) nominee along the lines of then-Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, both of whom seized defeat from the jaws of victory. In other words, Democrats’ challenge in Georgia is the equivalent of pulling off a two- or three-cushion shot in pool.
After Georgia, the only remote chances Democrats have are in Kentucky, upsetting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and in Maine, a Democratic-leaning state but with a very popular GOP incumbent. The odds of a Democratic gain in the state, as long as Collins is running, are about nil.
But all of these mathematical opportunities for Republicans are just theoretical unless the GOP recruits and nominates good candidates, a problem that plagued the party the 2010 and 2012 cycles, and begins to cut into its lack of support among minority, younger, female, and moderate voters. In 2010, a great Republican year, the GOP lost five of the seven Senate seats The Cook Political Report rated as Toss-Ups going into Election Day, and also lost eight of the 10 Toss-Ups in 2012—providing a sobering counterpoint to the argument of extensive Democratic exposure. The bottom line is, IF Republicans get their act together, they SHOULD have a good chance to win a majority in the Senate. But that is a big IF.
This article appears in the June 18, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as No Guarantees.