Six years after solidifying control of the Senate, Democratic incumbents face serious headwinds. First, they are defending 21 seats, Republicans just 15. Several of those are in moderate and conservative states. Second, the president’s approval ratings on the economy, foreign policy decisions, and Obamacare are 40%, 41%, and 39%, respectively. Only 27% of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction. These leading indicators have Democratic incumbents scrambling to distance themselves from the White House. Lastly, Republicans have recruited strong candidates to challenge Democrats in states previously thought safe. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is getting stretched in states like Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
While many pundits are predicting 2014 will be a banner year for the GOP, it’s a little premature to roll out the champagne at Republican headquarters. This could well be the third straight cycle in which Republicans were positioned to take back the upper chamber, only to fall short by their own doing. There were arguably six Senate seats that the Republicans lost over the last two
elections, primarily due to flawed nominees emerging from the Republican primaries. The core question for Republicans in 2014 is whether their candidates can run smart campaigns without the fatal miscues we witnessed in 2010 and 2012. The Republican primary in Georgia may help to answer that question. If a tea-party candidate prevails, Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn becomes a viable threat to turn Georgia blue.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the majority. Barring any surprise outcomes in Georgia or elsewhere, the fate of the Senate can be boiled down to four races – Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), North Carolina (Kay Hagan), and Alaska (Mark Begich). Each will pit an unabashedly conservative GOP challenger against a Democratic incumbent in a traditionally red state. Republicans will probably need to win three of four to take the Senate. The President’s average approval rating in those four states remains below 40%, so picking up three is certainly within reach. But it’s a long time until November, and there will be ample opportunity for those challengers to stumble or get trapped in fringe positions that are hard to defend in a general election.
Patrick O'Neill is a partner at Public Strategies Washington. Before joining PSW in 2008, he was Manager of Political Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.