This is not going to be one of those columns that we read almost every other year proclaiming the next election to be the most important one since the Greeks developed the idea of democracy 2,500 or so years ago. It does, however, make the case that this election is a pretty important one in terms of determining the Senate’s partisan balance of power for the better part of the next decade.
Any discussion of Senate elections has to start with the observation that what happened six years earlier — the issues, dynamics, circumstances, and outcome of that election — effectively set the table for this upcoming midterm. In the House, with two-year terms, the playing field is determined in the previous election. In the Senate, with six-year terms, it is what happened six years earlier that sets the field. If one party had a great election and picked up an unusually large number of seats one year, that party is likely to be overexposed six years later. It not only will often have significantly more seats up and at risk, but often will have some freshmen within the ranks who were first elected with a strong partisan tailwind, some of whom might not have won under normal circumstances.
First, let’s look at the last four rounds of Senate elections. In 2006, with the Iraq war weighing heavily on him, President Bush went into his second midterm election with his Gallup job approval ratings down to 38 percent. With a strong wind at their backs, Democrats picked up six Senate seats, setting the stage for the 2012 elections, when they would have 23 seats up compared with just 10 for the GOP. Republicans entered the 2012 election with high expectations that they could capitalize on this overexposure. However, with a weak national ticket, primary voters who tended to pick weak nominees, and strong GOP resistance among minority, women, young, and moderate voters, the party lost eight of the 10 races that The Cook Political Report had rated as “Toss Up” going into Election Day and ended up losing two seats when they had been expecting to pick up at least that many. A real opportunity to capture control of the Senate, set up by the 2006 election, slipped through the GOP’s fingers in 2012.
In the 2008 election, just two months after the financial crisis, with the Obama-Biden ticket beating the McCain-Palin ticket 52.9-45.7 percent and a strong turnout among younger and minority voters, Democrats picked up eight Senate seats. This meant that in 2014, Democrats would have 21 seats at risk, to just 14 for the GOP. Thus, again Republicans have an opportunity to score big gains, but that opportunity could slip through their fingers as it did two years earlier. If we give Republicans the benefit of the doubt in the fight to pick up open Democratic Senate seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, the six seats most likely to determine whether Democrats will hold the Senate are all in states carried by Mitt Romney. These are Alaska (Mark Begich), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), and North Carolina (Kay Hagan), all Democratic incumbents, and Republican seats in Georgia (where Saxby Chambliss is retiring) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnell). In North Carolina, Romney won by only 2 points, and in Georgia he won by only 8 points. In the other four states listed, Romney ran up huge margins of victory. However, none of these races are gimme putts — in fact, the toughest seats for Democrats to hold are at no worse odds than 50-50.
Assuming that all other races go the direction that they are widely expected to go, and Republicans win the Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia contests, the GOP then has to win five out of those final six contests. To put it differently, even if Republicans hold Georgia and McConnell wins in Kentucky (neither is a sure bet at all), the GOP would still have to knock out three Democratic incumbents, which is as many as they have unseated in the last five elections combined (since 2004, the only incumbent Democratic senators to lose general elections were Blanche Lincoln, Tom Daschle, and Russ Feingold. If the GOP loses either Georgia or Kentucky, they would have to beat all four Democratic incumbents up in 2014 to win a majority.
The reason next year is so make-or-break for Senate Republicans is because in 2016, when all of the seats they won in 2010 come up — they netted a six-seat net gain that year — there will be 24 GOP seats up, compared with only 10 for Democrats, leading to some serious Republican overexposure. Seven of the 24 GOP senators up are hailing from states that Obama carried in 2012. After having had plentiful Democratic targets in 2012 and 2014, it will be Republicans in 2016 who will have the most incumbents in the crosshairs.
All of this is to say that Republicans really have to do well in the Senate elections in 2014, largely because they will have few opportunities for gains in 2016, a year in which they will be playing defense, not offense. This means that Republicans cannot nominate some of the more exotic candidates that they nominated in Delaware and Nevada in 2010, or weak candidates with weak campaigns as they did that year in Colorado. Comparable candidates to Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, the 2012 Missouri and Indiana candidates whose nominations effectively meant that the GOP seized defeat from the jaws of victory in multiple states, should be avoided. So, the 2014 Senate elections really are important.