6 Signs a Republican Senate Takeover Is Within Reach

Democratic Party operatives are longingly waiting for 2016, when the political map is much more favorable.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (L), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2nd L) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R) head to the front of the chamber together before President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

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.

Contributions by Alex Roarty
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