Republican gains and President Obama's weakness have Democrats on their heels, preparing to fight for Senate seats they never thought they would have to defend and hoping that 2016 will give them a chance to win back the Senate if they lose it next year.
Mark Warner, one of the most popular Democrats in the Senate, is now facing a serious challenge from one of the few Virginia Republicans who can keep pace with his fundraising. Polls show the Republican favorite in Michigan running evenly with Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, and raising more money than him as well. Republicans are even watching the Oregon Senate race closely, where a Republican physician running against Obamacare raised a half-million dollars against Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Democrats are feeling the pressure and looking longingly at 2016, when the political landscape should be nearly as favorable to them as the 2014 environment is perilous to their majority. This year, the party is defending seven states that rejected Obama in 2012; the GOP will be defending six seats in state that he carried that year in 2016.
"We always knew this cycle would have a number of difficult seats to defend," said Democratic strategist Jef Pollock. "Everything stacks up better for us in 2016."
What's changed in the past month is that a handful of states once thought to be safely Democratic—such as Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia—could become highly competitive in a best-case GOP scenario. If President Obama's approval ratings don't improve and Republicans catch a few breaks, the GOP could ride a wave to a majority that could withstand a small 2016 setback.
"They've put candidates on the ballot," acknowledged J.B. Poersch, who advises Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC focused on the Senate. But he added, "Six months from now, or even four months from now, how many of these are actually going to be races? It's great to be able to laundry list candidates and another to see how viable they're going to be."
Among the signs that the field is expanding in the GOP's favor.
1. Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman with an enviable fundraising network, announced he would challenge Democrat Mark Warner, who is popular and has $7 million in the bank. But Virginia is shaping up to be a true swing state, and Gillespie doesn't have to worry about a competitive primary. On Monday, one possible rival dropped out and another declined to jump in.
2. Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land proved she could keep up with Peters's fundraising and put in $1.6 million of her own money to boot. Polls show a tight race. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder will also be on the ballot. "Everyone is bullish about Michigan right now," said Republican strategist Rick Wiley.
3. Democrats are so worried about the possibility of former Sen. Scott Brown challenging New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that they ran a preemptive attack ad against him on television. The former Massachusetts senator moved into his vacation home in the Granite State last year.
"I think it will be a barn-burner if he gets in," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. "Boston is the dominant TV market in New Hampshire, so he is universally known. He has a national fundraising base at well."
4. In North Carolina, one of the bellwether Senate races, two automated polls this month show Sen. Kay Hagan trailing one Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis. One of those surveys is from North Carolina-based Democratic pollster, Public Policy Polling. The state backed President Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Hagan has been a prolific fundraiser, but she is a first-term senator who isn't particularly well-known throughout the state.
5. Americans for Prosperity, the conservative juggernaut bankrolled by the Koch family, broadened its televised attacks on Obamacare to two states carried by Obama—Michigan and Iowa. The group has spent $22 million already this cycle. A tongue-in-cheek post by the Center for Public Integrity noticed that the subject lines of the fundraising e-mails from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have gotten increasingly hysterical, from "deep trouble" to "doomed" to "catastrophic."
6. Oregon Republican Monica Wehby announced she raised $500,000 last year. It's a solidly Democratic state, but she's a pediatric neurosurgeon who supports abortion rights and immigration reform. If she wins the GOP primary, she will face Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Democrats have more reasons to worry. While nobody thought Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor's reelection would be easy in a state President Obama lost by 24 points, getting outraised by Republican rival Rep. Tom Cotton at the end of 2013 makes the incumbent look like the underdog. Arkansas was among 10 states that gave the president his lowest approval ratings in 2013, pegged by Gallup at 35 percent.
Even worse is the view from West Virginia, where only 25 percent approved of the president's job performance last year. The likely Republican nominee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who got a yearlong head start, has raised seven times as much money.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces his own tough reelection in Kentucky, couldn't help but gloat recently on Fox News Sunday about expanding the map.
"I'm very confident in every single place where we have an opportunity for a pickup, we're going to have a very electable candidate, not just in the primary but in the general as well," he said. "The atmosphere for us is so good that we're also stretching the playing field…. So, I think it could be a very good year."
That view could change if the president has a more productive 2014 or if Obamacare produces more success stories. But for now, Republicans are maximizing their advantages.
The GOP Response(s)
Alex Roarty contributed to this article.