Republicans are counting on a favorable environment and target-rich map to carry them to a Senate majority in 2015. But standing between them and victory are a slew of Democratic incumbents who, while vulnerable, have one important advantage: People like them.
There's no better example than in New Hampshire, home to one of the country's most eagerly anticipated races after Scott Brown made a de facto campaign declaration earlier this month against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The former GOP senator from Massachusetts is a strong candidate in his own right, well-known and capable of raising millions of dollars. But his opponent is no ordinary incumbent: She's a former six-year governor whose tenure stretches back decades in a small state where voters get to know their elected officials well.
And she has the poll numbers to back it up: Despite her vote for President Obama's deeply unpopular health care law, half of New Hampshire's adults regard Shaheen positively, according to a WMUR Granite State poll from January. (Only 34 percent viewed her unfavorably.) In other words, she's in a far different place politically than the last Democratic woman Brown took down to earn a place in the Senate.
"He's going to find she's no Martha Coakley," said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire Republican attorney general. "This is a person people in this state know really well and are very comfortable with."
Republicans should be encouraged that challengers like Brown have signed up to take on Democratic lawmakers despite their popularity — an indication that they think a national mood sour on Democrats will trump the daunting prospect of taking on well-entrenched incumbents. But GOP strategists warn that these challengers face a more complicated path to victory, one that will force them to carefully calibrate a strategy that can simultaneously critique their opponents but do so without relying on an assault on the Democrats' character.
"You can argue whether she's too close to the president or Harry Reid, but there's no question the people have known her, known her family, for 30 years," Rath said. "It's going to be hard to make her into a person who's not likable."
Republicans face a similar obstacle in Virginia where Sen. Mark Warner, a former governor, awaits. Sen. Mark Udall, whose family name is legendary in Democratic circles, is up for reelection in Colorado. Both have the type of reputation that makes them more than just a generic member of their party. Warner has long inculcated a reputation as a centrist, and polls have reported his approval rating north of 60 percent.
Udall isn't as well-liked, but more voters than not have a favorable image of him as he begins his reelection campaign. A survey from the Democratic firm Hickman Associates International, conducted on behalf of the Consumer Energy Alliance (a group that supports building the Keystone XL pipeline), found that 47 percent of state residents saw him very or somewhat unfavorably; only 26 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Those are the kind of numbers Democratic operatives say they can use to make the contests a local matchup of personalities, not just in the troika of blue states but possibly with Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. Shaheen, for instance, can talk about funding she delivered for a local firehouse while Republicans talk breathlessly about the president and Reid.
It's a strategy they argue worked well in 2012, when Republicans tried and failed to make an array of Senate races a national referendum.
"Republicans' only hope is to make these races about something else other than the names on the ballot," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "And it didn't work for them last cycle."
GOP operatives involved in their races this year stress their candidates know that campaigning against a popular incumbent like Warner is different. It starts, they say, by understanding how they talk about him or her with voters has to be measured, at least in the early going.
"If somebody starts off with a personal favorability rating that might be high, if you start going and saying they shouldn't like them, you're probably going to run into a brick wall," said Dan Allen, a Republican operative based in Virginia.
Instead, Allen urged Republicans to keep their attacks focused tightly on policy, especially Obamacare. The criticism isn't necessarily about persuading people then and there to vote against him, but rather part of a longer game to convince them that their long-held image of Warner as a centrist doesn't match what he's done in office. At which point, voters will be more open-minded about other arguments against him.
It's a playbook that Warner's opponent, former chairman of the Republican National Committee Ed Gillespie, appears to be following. A Web video released by his campaign compares and contrasts the two candidates' stance on Obamacare while the law was debated in 2009, suggesting that Warner "broke his word" to his constituents by voting for it.
"Going after likability as your first punch, or your first advance — that's going to turn more people off than you're going to get," Allen said. "The smart campaigns are the ones that look at it and say, 'I'm not going to make it personal. I don't need to. Let me use some of these things out there already.' "
Not everyone frets that GOP candidates need to tiptoe by their opponents. Operatives at the National Republican Senatorial Committee say their own internal polling on Shaheen, Warner, and Landrieu show at least a plurality of voters think a new person should take office. In other words: Voters are ready to throw the bums out.
Ed Bethune, a former GOP House member from Arkansas who challenged Mark Pyror's father, David, for his Senate seat in 1984, says the elder Pryor's popularity rendered his challenge little more than a long shot — even during Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection win.
But that was 30 years ago, he adds, before voters started caring about party affiliation and stopped caring about the personalities behind them. Now voters know what they want in a politician, and in Arkansas, it's not a Democrat.
"I kid David Pryor all the time, 'Why don't we rerun our race this year?' " Bethune said.