Sabato's Crystal Ball

2014 Senate Preview: Can Republicans Finally Turn Potential Into Reality?

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U.Va. Center for Politics November 29th, 2012

As the 2012 election fades into the history books, we begin our first look at the 2014 contests for Senate, House and Governor. Let’s start with the Senate, which will be the site of an intense battle for control once again.

Before looking ahead at the Republicans’ prospects to gain the six seats they need to win control of the Senate, it is first important — though for Republicans, painful — to look back at the past two Senate cycles.

In 2010, Republicans probably threw away three seats when they nominated weak candidates in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada. Then, in the just-concluded election, they threw away, at a minimum, two more seats in Indiana and Missouri (thanks to the disastrous candidacies of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin). And that’s not counting other Senate races where different Republican candidates might have performed better or even won in Florida, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia.

So instead of having a tied Senate, or a tiny majority for one side or the other, Republicans are in the unenviable position of needing to levitate out of a deep hole they’ve dug for themselves. Only then can they end Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) six-year (and counting) leadership of the Senate.

The 113th Congress is slated to open in early January with Democrats holding a 55-45 edge in the U.S. Senate. (The number includes two independents, Sen.-elect Angus King of Maine and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who will caucus with the Democrats.) This assumes that the composition of the Senate does not change; it’s always possible that a senator will leave office prematurely, perhaps to take another position — for instance, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) might join the Obama administration as secretary of state or defense.

Map 1: Senate seats up for election in 2014

At first blush, the 2014 Senate map presents some promising opportunities for Republicans. Of the 33 seats that will be contested in November 2014, Republicans only have to defend 13 while Democrats have to defend 20. And the Republican seats — as is obvious from Map 1 — are almost entirely situated in deeply Republican states. In 12 of the 13 states currently represented by Republicans on this map, President Obama won 45.5% of the vote or less in all except Maine (which he won easily).

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney captured seven of the 20 states where Democrats will defend seats: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Of those seven, only North Carolina, where Romney won by about two points, was even close at the presidential level. In the other six states, Obama’s best performance was in Montana, where he secured just 41.7%. Given that midterm electorates are typically smaller, older and whiter than presidential electorates — which generally will make them more Republican — and given that Democrats are dangerously exposed in several Romney states, Republicans have a multitude of juicy targets, while Democrats have few.

That said, let’s recall that at this time two years ago, Republicans also had an attractive playing field: They had to defend only 10 seats, while Democrats had to defend 23. And yet Democrats actually ended up netting two seats. Not to be overly cruel, but the GOP had to try hard to blow the Senate in 2012 — and their efforts were amply rewarded.

In order to capitalize on the new opportunities presented by the 2014 Senate map, Republican voters are going to have to make wiser choices in primaries than they made in 2010 and 2012. But has the party base learned its lesson? It is not at all clear, and efforts by the Republican leadership in D.C. to impose preferred candidates likely won’t be met well in many states in the next go-round either. At the same time, national Republicans will somehow need to prod their major 2012 donors to stay in the game, convincing them that they will get more bang for their bucks in ’14 despite all the wasted cash this cycle.

Perhaps more than anything else, Republicans will need a national wave, along the lines of what they had in November 2010 when, despite candidate problems in some states, they netted six Senate seats (seven if one counts Scott Brown’s special election victory in January 2010). For a net six close races to tip to the GOP in two years, it will take more than good candidates and favorable geography; the atmospherics of 2014 will have to be clearly Republican.

It’s impossible to say, at this point, what the national landscape will look like a year and a half from now, when the general election campaigns for most of these 33 seats will be starting in earnest. The state of the national economy is a big question mark, which will help determine whether President Obama is a boost or a drag down the ticket. We also do not know which senators will decide to retire, or whether any will be caught up in personal scandal. Nor do we know what will be happening in individual states; for instance, will a ballot issue or other local factor have some impact on a federal contest?

What we do know, though, is that a second-term president’s final midterm is frequently bad for his party. Chart 1 shows midterm election results dating back to the end of World War II; note that Presidents Dwight Eisenhower (1958), Ronald Reagan (1986) and George W. Bush (2006) all suffered significant congressional losses in their “sixth-year itch” midterm elections. So did Presidents Harry Truman (1950) and Lyndon Johnson (1966), who were only elected once but were serving their party’s fifth and second consecutive term, respectively, in the White House; President Gerald Ford (1974) also presided over big losses in what would have Richard Nixon’s final midterm. Bill Clinton, thanks to a booming economy and Republican overreach on impeachment, actually saw his party make small gains in the House in 1998 and play to a draw in the Senate.

Will there be a sixth-year itch to scratch in 2014? The odds are, yes. But how irritating an itch for the Democratic Party? That is completely unknowable at the dawn of the election cycle.

Chart 1: Gain or loss for president’s party, midterm elections 1946-2010

Of the 33 seats up in 2014, the 10 that do not look competitive at the moment — either in the primary or the general — are Republican-held seats in Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming, as well as Democratic-held seats in Delaware and Rhode Island. That doesn’t mean they won’t become interesting, but they aren’t as of yet.

That leaves 23 seats with at least some level of primary or general election intrigue.

Republican-held seats

Georgia: Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) is likely to face a primary challenge because he is seen by some Republicans as too bipartisan, even though he has a 92.5% lifetime rating in the American Conservative Union’s vote ratings. The challenge could potentially come from Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), who just lost a bid to become chairman of the House Republican Conference, or former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a narrow loser to now-Gov. Nathan Deal in the 2010 gubernatorial primary who was last seen resigning from her position at the Susan G. Komen Foundation after Komen reversed its controversial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Chambliss had tough general election races in 2002 (when he unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland) and 2008 (when Democrat Jim Martin forced Chambliss into a runoff), but he probably wouldn’t have much trouble in a general election this time. However, it’s not impossible that a Chambliss primary loss, combined with a strong Democratic candidacy, could cause headaches for national Republicans.

Kentucky: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) appears well-positioned to hold off a potential primary challenge, and so long as he makes it through his primary he should be fine in a state where Democrats still have some statewide clout, but where Republicans dominate the federal delegation. There’s been some buzz about actress Ashley Judd challenging McConnell as a Democrat; it’s hard to say if there’s anything there, although one of Judd’s own relatives previewed McConnell’s likely line of attack on Judd if she runs: “She’s a Hollywood liberal,” Judd’s grandmother Polly Judd told the AP, while praising McConnell’s ability to produce for Kentucky.

Maine: So long as she runs for reelection, which seems highly likely, Sen. Susan Collins (R) would be safe. But what if she surprises and follows in the footsteps of her soon-to-be-former colleague, retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)? With Collins out of the picture, Democrats would probably be favored here, given that Sen.-elect Angus King’s (I/D) candidacy in the past cycle forced top Democrats, including Rep. Chellie Pingree (D), to the sidelines.

South Carolina: If one of the Palmetto State’s fiery bunch of Republican U.S. House representatives or another conservative wants to take on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) in a primary, the challenger might get a lot of outside help from the Club for Growth and other groups. Graham might not have done himself any primary favors when he recently suggested he might be open to government revenue increases as part of a budget deal with Democrats.

Texas: Sen. John Cornyn’s (R) term as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman was difficult (partly because the party base refuses to listen to leaders like Cornyn), and it would not be a shock if he faced a credible primary challenge. However, he’s probably in a more commanding position than other threatened GOP senators. He hasn’t ruffled many feathers, and in a sense, he was fortunate one of his potential challengers — Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R) — won his 2012 primary runoff over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R). Had Cruz fallen just short, he might have kept campaigning, aiming at Cornyn.

Democratic-held seats

Alaska: Given his fluky 2008 win in a very Republican state, Sen. Mark Begich (D) was always going to be in trouble. A candidacy by Joe Miller — the Republican who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 GOP primary only to lose to her write-in candidacy in the general — could help Begich survive. Gov. Sean Parnell (R) or Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) would certainly cause Begich more serious problems than Miller could. No Democrat is likely to have an easy statewide election for Senate in Alaska, but Begich has a fighting chance.

Arkansas: Prior to the 2010 election, Democrats held Arkansas’ state House, state Senate, three of its four U.S. House seats and both of its Senate seats. Now, Republicans control the state House and Senate, all four U.S. House seats and one of its two Senate seats — with Sen. Mark Pryor (D) up for reelection this cycle. This should be a top Republican opportunity. Potential challengers include Reps. Tim Griffin (R) and Steve Womack (R), along with Rep.-elect Tom Cotton (R). Pryor was unopposed in 2008, but the salad days for Razorback Democrats are completely over.

Colorado: Depending on the opponent, Sen. Mark Udall (D) could have a difficult race. At least for now, though, this is probably a second-tier pickup opportunity for Republicans. The growing clout of Hispanics is making Colorado an easier sell for Democrats.

Illinois: Sen. Dick Durbin (D) would be a cinch for reelection, but it’s possible he’ll retire. If he does, there’s a host of House members on both sides of the aisle who might attempt to move up. A Democrat would likely be favored to win the seat in any event, although the president’s home state elected Sen. Mark Kirk (R) in 2010. Even if Durbin retires, though, Republicans will probably have much better opportunities elsewhere.

Iowa: Sen. Tom Harkin (D) is another potential retirement. If he runs for another term, he’s a strong favorite. If not, Reps. Bruce Braley (D) and Tom Latham (R) could face off in a highly competitive contest. Rep. Steve King (R) is probably too conservative to be a successful statewide candidate, but Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is another GOP possibility if Latham doesn’t run.

Louisiana: While she is a classic survivor in Red territory, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will face another tough challenge in 2014, and she, like Begich and Pryor, must be categorized at the outset as an endangered incumbent. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) is sometimes mentioned as a challenger, although there are many potential GOP candidates in a state where the Democratic Party is on life support. If anyone can pull out a reelection in difficult circumstances, though, it’s Landrieu, who possesses a famous Bayou State family name.

Massachusetts: If he’s on the ballot, Sen. John Kerry (D) would have no trouble getting reelected. If he isn’t, outgoing Sen. Scott Brown (R) would be a real contender to bounce back in a special or general election; Richard Tisei (R), a former state legislator who narrowly lost a challenge against Rep. John Tierney (D), is another Republican possibility. On the Democratic side, Gov. Deval Patrick (D) would be a possibility, as would several current and former members of the Bay State’s large Democratic U.S. House delegation.

Michigan: This seat only comes into play if Sen. Carl Levin (D) retires. It’s too soon to say much more than that, though Democratic Michigan can occasionally move Republican in midterm years. Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) and Rep. Gary Peters (D), among others, are potential contenders in the event of a Levin retirement.

Minnesota: After winning the narrowest of belated victories in 2009, Sen. Al Franken (D) has a decent approval rating in Gopherland, and he enters his first reelection bid as a slight favorite. We suspect he would trounce Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), who barely survived her 2012 reelection bid in Minnesota’s most Republican House district. Another possibility — one-time presidential contender and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) — will not be a candidate, having landed a lucrative job in association-land. The quality of the Republican challenger will determine much here. Minnesota has a reputation for being more Democratic than it actually is.

Montana: Outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) says he’s not “senile enough” to serve in the U.S. Senate, but we wouldn’t be shocked if, even after that memorable quip from the highly quotable governor, Schweitzer decided to challenge Sen. Max Baucus (D) in a primary. Or, Baucus might just retire. In any event, expect Republicans — still smarting from their stunning failures in November’s Senate and gubernatorial races — to make a play here. Perhaps Rep.-elect Steve Daines (R) could be a candidate, although he might be wise to stay where he is, lest he repeat the failure of his eastern neighbor, Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota. Berg, an outgoing freshman Republican, tried and failed to move up to the Senate after only one House term, losing to Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in one of the past cycle’s biggest upsets. Interestingly, since the advent of popular Senate elections about a century ago, no Republican has ever been elected to this seat.

New Hampshire: While she enters this season as a clear favorite, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) could potentially be vulnerable if the temperamental Granite State again swings heavily to the GOP. We wonder if this state has changed its famous “Live Free or Die” motto to “Live Wildly or Die” — or maybe, given the all-women makeup of its top leadership, “Live Female or Die.” Just kidding, New Hampshire.

New Jersey: Whatever decision 88-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) makes about running for another term, Democrats should be OK here. A Lautenberg retirement could provide an opening for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), one of the nation’s most prominent city leaders, to run statewide. The only truly credible potential Republican candidate, popular Gov. Chris Christie (who will run for reelection in 2013), has his eyes on a bigger prize, we assume.

New Mexico: This Sen. Udall (D), Tom, is in an even stronger position than cousin Mark in Colorado.

North Carolina: Incumbency doesn’t mean much in Tar Heel Senate contests, which means that Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was always going to be vulnerable. As if to underline that, she occupies a seat in one of only two states (Indiana is the other) to switch back to the Republicans after supporting Barack Obama in 2008. House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) is a possible challenger, and the U.S. House delegation is overflowing with possible GOP opponents, too.

Oregon: Another 2008 freshman Democrat running for a second term is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), who is hardly a household name anywhere. But it’s hard to figure out who might run against him in an increasingly Blue state. Oregon’s lone Republican House member, Rep. Greg Walden, is running the National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle, which would seem to take him out of consideration. This is probably a marginal Republican pickup opportunity.

South Dakota: Republicans scored a top-tier recruit when ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R) announced his intention to run for this seat, which Sen. Tim Johnson (D) may or may not elect to defend. If Johnson retires, Mount Rushmore State Democrats will surely lean on ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to make a comeback; Sandlin lost a close race to Rep. Kristi Noem (R) in 2010.

Virginia: After publicly considering a potential return as governor, popular Sen. Mark Warner (D) has elected to stay in the Senate, and he will be very difficult to beat. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) does not appear likely to run, and while one of the state’s eight GOP U.S. House members could give it a go, it would take a perfect storm of events — and a perfect challenger — to put Warner in peril.

West Virginia: A couple tea leaves point to the possibility that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) will not seek reelection in the reddening Mountain State. Over the summer, Rockefeller challenged the coal industry over climate change, which isn’t a popular political move in a state where President Obama didn’t win a single county in part because of his perceived hostility to the coal industry. And then, earlier this week, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) announced her plans to run for Rockefeller’s seat. Might she sense that Rockefeller, a West Virginia institution, will pass on a possible sixth term? Or might she be confident enough that she can beat Rockefeller even if he does run? Democrats do have some potential candidates if Rockefeller retires, such as Secretary of State Natalie Tennant or former appointed Sen. Carte Goodwin, but Capito, a moderate-conservative, is a strong challenger here, even if she’s not universally beloved on the right. (The Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, for instance, attacked her after she announced her candidacy.) The GOP has a good pickup opportunity here.

Conclusion

Overall, there are mainly question marks in the battle for the Senate, as one would expect this early in the cycle. The potential for a GOP takeover is there, but it is purely potential, and after the GOP base’s performance in the last couple of cycles, few will bet on them at the moment; they have a lot to prove about their grasp of practical politics in a demographically changing America.

We’ll assign formal ratings to these races later in the cycle. We think you’ll agree, there’s plenty of time.