Each election year has its own unique characteristics. No two are alike, and this is one of the many things that make politics so interesting. Obviously, Senate Democrats are facing tough challenges in 2014. They have more seats up—meaning more at risk—than Republicans. Seven of those Democratic seats are in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 (six went for the GOP presidential nominee by 14 points or more), and just a single Republican seat up is in a state carried by President Obama. When you add midterm turnout dynamics that increasingly work to benefit Republicans, and a generally nasty political environment for Democrats, the takeaway is: This is not a fun year to be Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet or Executive Director Guy Cecil. Both men, and their staff members, do phenomenal jobs, but the deck is still stacked against them; they just have to make the best of an unfortunate situation.
A survey of the national landscape finds that open Democratic seats in South Dakota and, to a lesser extent, West Virginia will be extremely difficult for the party to hold. The former will be pretty close to impossible, and the latter will be quite hard. Appointed Sen. John Walsh faces an uphill struggle in Montana as well, meaning that three Democratic seats look highly likely to fall into Republican hands before the GOP has won a single truly competitive race. Then come six incumbents facing extremely tough fights: Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Mark Udall (Colorado), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), and Kay Hagan (North Carolina). Then there is a very close contest for an open seat in Michigan, and a somewhat less endangered seat in Iowa. If the hurricane facing Democrats is a Category 1, 2, or 3, this will be the extent of Senate Democratic vulnerability. If it gets to a 4 or a 5, one should look at Mark Warner (Virginia), Al Franken (Minnesota), and Jeff Merkley (Oregon). One would be hard-pressed to find an election cycle that is as up-front ugly for either party as this one is for Democrats.
What is pretty unusual about this year is that, as bad as it is for Senate Democrats, none of the party's nine elected incumbents facing challenging races can be considered dead or even a clear underdog at this point. Over the years, incumbents in both parties—including Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and John Sununu, R-N.H.—have faced truly uphill reelection challenges, and lost. But other incumbents certainly managed to pull a Lazarus and rise from the dead, or undergo a political resurrection while the campaign was in progress.
One of the most closely watched Senate races of 2014 is in Arkansas, where both of my late parents were born and raised. I have tons of relatives still in south Arkansas, visit Little Rock and northwest Arkansas at least once a year, and consider the Razorback State my ex officio home state, second only to my native Louisiana. A few months ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington, more so than in Arkansas, was that incumbent Mark Pryor was toast. Personally, I never quite bought into the "toast" characterization, but I do remember having a metaphysical conversation related to this race, specifically about when bread technically becomes toast and what level of brownness or crunchiness constitutes toast. While I am not quite sure I buy completely into the recent NBC News/Marist College and New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation surveys showing Pryor with leads of 11 points and 10 points, respectively, over Rep. Tom Cotton, those polls do buttress the credibility of those showing Pryor now holding low-to-middle single-digit leads, and end the toast comparisons.
My hunch is that a lot of people got a little ahead of their skis in pronouncing Pryor dead, but I also suspect that Cotton's Jan. 29 vote against the farm bill—he was one of 63 House Republicans, mostly very conservative members, who voted against it, while 162 Republicans voted for it—had something to do with this. Among House Democrats, 89 voted for passage of the farm bill, 103—mostly pretty liberal members from urban districts and unhappy over food-stamp cuts—voted against it. No Republicans in Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, or Missouri voted against the bill, and some of those folks are pretty conservative.
Although Cotton unquestionably has deeply held conservative principles that persuaded him to vote against the farm bill, it sure wasn't politically expedient for the Senate candidate to vote in opposition. My hunch is that there is a lot of head-scratching over that vote among farmers and folks in rural and small-town Arkansas. Given the increasingly conservative and racially polarized voting patterns in the Deep South, particularly in races like this one, Democratic candidates desperately need to find opportunities to drive a wedge between conservative positions taken by their opponents and what would strike most back home as not in a state's best interest. It's times like this when voters have that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" moment, wondering why a member of Congress from a largely rural state would take such a position. This race is far from over, and Cotton still could win. But my guess is, his vote on the farm bill will be a cudgel that Pryor will swing at him from now to November, providing an opening that the incumbent needed and the challenger could ill-afford to give. If Cotton doesn't regret the vote already, he soon will.
This article appears in the May 17, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Who's Really Toast?.
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