Stop us if you've heard this one: Senate Democrats will defend many more seats than their Republican counterparts this cycle, putting the party squarely on defense and their 55-seat majority at risk. Faced with the same bleak scenario at the start of the 2012 cycle, Democrats wound up with unexpected gains. But their odds of keeping a majority intact after the midterm elections will depend in part on the preparation they do now.
That's because a number of senators whose terms will expire at the end of the cycle are seriously contemplating retirement, leaving open seats that would become inviting targets to Republicans. Democrats want to keep retirements — and the targets they create — to a minimum. At the very least, party strategists say it would be helpful to know which seats will be open, so that replacement candidates have the time to mount successful efforts.
Behind the scenes, Democrats have already begun the biennial process of feeling out their candidates. Sources say Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has long played a major behind-the-scenes role strategizing for his fellow Senate Democrats, will gently push incumbents to make a decision earlier rather than later. They don't try to force senators to decide by a date certain, but the subtle pressure will exist. Reid plays a bigger role with older members of the Senate, while Schumer has a closer relationship with newer, younger senators.
Democrats acknowledge that, amid distaste for Washington and politics writ large, incumbency isn't the advantage it once was. But an incumbent has the ability to raise more money, depend on name recognition, and tell their story at an earlier point than a nonincumbent might be able to.
The results are evident: In the last eight years, just two Democratic incumbents — Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — have lost reelection bids. In the last two election cycles, Republicans picked up five Democratic-held open seats, in Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania.
No Democrats have said publicly they will not seek another term this cycle, but party strategists are keeping a close eye on several incumbents, given their age or conditions. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, 88, is the oldest member of the upper chamber. Four others — Sens. Max Baucus, Carl Levin, Tom Harkin, and Jay Rockefeller — are over 70 years old. Sen. Tim Johnson, 65, is still recovering from bleeding in the brain he suffered in 2006.
Lautenberg, Levin, and Rockefeller are the most likely to step aside, Democratic sources say, but even they aren't sure things. A Lautenberg spokesman told The Hill this week that retirement "is the last thing on his mind." Rockefeller told Politico he would make an announcement later, and sources with knowledge of his thinking said he truly hasn't turned his mind to politics yet. A Levin spokeswoman also dodged the question.
Johnson faces a difficult fight against former Gov. Mike Rounds, who has already formed an exploratory committee. Johnson told a South Dakota reporter last week that he would decide on reelection "sometime next year."
Beyond age and health, some incumbents may simply want to move on. If Sen. John Kerry isn't tapped for an administration job this year, he might decide to step aside. Then again, if he is tapped — a more likely scenario — he would be out of the Senate even earlier, forcing a special election unless Bay State Democrats pass new legislation allowing the governor to appoint a replacement.
Some Democrats say they wouldn't be surprised if Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, second in his party's leadership ranks, decide against another term. Durbin told Crain's Chicago Business thatg he planned to run for reelection, but that a final decision would come next year.
Open seats aren't created equal. Democrats would certainly have an easier time keeping Lautenberg's New Jersey seat in the blue column than they would Johnson's South Dakota seat. But even deep-blue states can force a party to spend money: In 2012, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $2.6 million to defend an open seat in Connecticut, a state President Obama won by 18 points. Every dollar the party spent there, or will have to spend in a blue state with an open seat in 2014, is a dollar they can't spend defending vulnerable incumbents.
And this cycle features plenty of vulnerable incumbents who will almost certainly seek another term. Republicans will likely target Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, and North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, four Democrats who hold seats in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. Colorado's Mark Udall, New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, and Minnesota's Al Franken could all attract promising Republican opponents as well.
After losing two seats in 2012, Republicans now need to pick up a net of six in 2014 to control the Senate. Democratic wins this year provided an immeasurable psychological boost to a party that had expected to lose. Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and the next head of the DSCC will need that psychology to prevent a rush to the exits over the next 18 months, and to preserve their control over the Senate.