For a midterm election year, 2014 is chock full of marquee races. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces competitive contests in Kentucky's Republican primary and then also in the general election, should he win renomination. Democrats are defending seven Senate seats in states President Obama lost in 2012, including the seats currently held by longtime incumbents Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Challengers like Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and GOP Reps. Bill Cassidy and Tom Cotton -- the chief rivals of McConnell, Landrieu and Pryor, respectively -- are relatively well-known. But this year also is likely to see a number of big contests that haven't popped just yet, with both sides fielding impressive challengers in competitive races.
Here are the under-the-radar candidates we'll be watching closely at The Hotline in 2014:
-- Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land: Land, the presumptive GOP nominee for the seat held by retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has kept pace with Democratic Rep. Gary Peters thus far. Both raised about $1 million in the third quarter of last year (fourth-quarter reports aren't due until Jan. 31), and Land, the former secretary of state and failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, kicked in another $1 million of her own money. Polls show Land and Peters running neck-and-neck despite the state's Democratic lean; Republican haven't won a Senate race in the Wolverine State since 1994.
-- Mississippi Republican Chris McDaniel: Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is the most likely incumbent to lose renomination this year. McDaniel launched his campaign before the six-term Cochran, 76, even announced he would seek reelection. McDaniel earned the endorsements of three prominent conservative groups -- Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth and the Madison Project -- on the first day of his candidacy. McConnell's race gets most of the headlines, but Mississippi is the epicenter of the GOP "civil war" between the establishment and these outside, insurgent groups. Automated polls differ on the competitiveness of the primary; some show the race close, while a third in December showed Cochran ahead. But robopolls are less accurate in Mississippi because of the state's high cell-phone-only population.
-- Oregon Republican Monica Wehby: First-term Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., could face a stiff challenge from Wehby, whose biography as a pediatric neurosurgeon could be compelling given the state's struggles in implementing its health-care exchange. Wehby only joined the race in October, so she hasn't filed any fundraising reports just yet, nor have we seen any public polling data from the Beaver State.
-- Arizona Republicans Andy Tobin and Martha McSally: Republicans are touting Tobin and McSally, who are running against Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, respectively. Neither Tobin, the state House speaker, nor McSally, who lost narrowly to Barber in 2012, have a free shot at the GOP nomination in their district. But both Democrats are running for reelection in districts Mitt Romney won, and GOP outside groups have already run TV ads attacking the incumbents. McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, has a particularly compelling biography, Republicans say.
-- California Democrat Amanda Renteria: A successful congressional run would be a homecoming of sorts for Renteria, who was the first Hispanic woman to serve as chief of staff to a U.S. senator -- Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Renteria moved back to California's Central Valley, where she is taking on GOP Rep. David Valadao in a district Obama won by 11 points in 2012. Valadao won easily that year, but Democrats are hopeful that Renteria's profile, in addition to her knowledge of agriculture issues working for Stabenow, will help her close the gap.
-- Illinois Democrat Ann Callis: Callis is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's earliest, most-touted recruits. The former Madison County chief judge is taking on Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who won by a thousand votes in 2012, a greater margin than Romney's 372-vote victory in the district. Davis also has a primary challenger with some name-ID: former Miss America Erika Harold.
-- Minnesota Republican Torrey Westrom: For years, Republicans have sought to knock off Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and, on its face, the western Minnesota district isn't a big reach. But even though Romney won the district by 10 points in 2012, Peterson has been nearly indestructible. He won by a 25-point margin in 2012, and by a 17-point spread in the GOP wave year of 2010. This cycle, Republicans are backing Westrom, a state senator who was blinded by a farming accident as a teenager.
-- Kansas Democrat Paul Davis: A schism between moderates and conservatives has roiled the state GOP, with Gov. Sam Brownback ushering in a right-wing takeover of the party. Conservatives now have a majority in the state legislature, rolling over moderates and Democrats in passing new tax cuts and abortion restrictions. A moderate streak has long run through the Sunflower State GOP -- think Sens. Robert Dole and Nancy Kassebaum -- and now some moderates are uniting to oppose Brownback's agenda, with rumors that some will even endorse Davis, the state House minority leader. An automated-telephone poll last fall showed Davis narrowly ahead of Brownback, though the state's strong Republican lean makes the incumbent the favorite barring additional evidence.
-- Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty: The most vulnerable sitting governor in the U.S. is Pennsylvania Republican Tom Corbett, and more than half-a-dozen Democrats are already in the race. The nominal frontrunner in the primary is Rep. Allyson Schwartz, but the race is wide open; businessman Tom Wolf has already raised $2.9 million in donations, on top of a $10 million contribution from his own checking account. McGinty, a former state environmental secretary in then-Gov. Ed Rendell's administration -- has established a professional campaign and should have the resources to compete along with Schwartz, Wolf, and state Treasurer Rob McCord.
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