2014 US Senate Races Remain In State of Flux

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  • U.S. Capitol
    (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)
    The statue of Grief and History stands in front of the Capitol Dome in Washington October 15, 2013.
By Kyle Kondik, CP Op-Ed Contributor
December 6, 2013|10:43 am

The last month has been, on the surface, great for the Republican Party's electoral fortunes in 2014. President Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has been a mess, and it remains persistently unpopular in polling. Obama's approval rating has been on a steady decline for months, and the recent events have driven it increasingly downward. During the government shutdown, the Democratic lead in the House generic ballot - a simple poll measuring whether voters would support the Democratic or Republican candidate in their local House race - spiked to the high single digits in polling averages. Now Republicans hold a small lead in this key metric. Conditions such as these on Election Day 2014 would suggest at least a small Republican addition to their House majority and quite possibly a Senate takeover.

This is the macro view of the 2014 election, which matters a lot; in the event of a wave, smaller-bore factors - like the candidates running and the campaigns themselves - can be overwhelmed. But the candidates and campaigns remain important: Just look at the Todd Akins and Richard Mourdock's of the world.

On the candidate front, the Republicans still have a lot of work to do, and they largely have not turned their positive polling into the recruitment of new candidates or the expansion of the congressional playing field.

When Democrats were riding high around the time of the government shutdown, a number of positive developments broke their way beyond the fickle polls. A handful of House Republicans, including Reps. Jon Runyan (R, NJ-3) and Tim Griffin (R, AR-2), retired, making their open House seats more competitive for Democratic challengers. Democrats announced another handful of challengers in Republican-leaning districts - candidates who are underdogs to win, but who will probably at least make their GOP opponents work. In mid-September and early October, Democrats scored two decent challengers in open Senate seats: Natalie Tennant in West Virginia and John Walsh in Montana (John Bohlinger, another Democrat, later entered the Big Sky Country contest, to the consternation of national Democrats).

If Obama is circling the drain next November, none of these developments may matter. Republicans could hold their open seats, and all the Democratic recruits that looked so shiny and great when touted in press releases could lose by double digits. But the key thing for Democrats is that the retirements they arguably forced, and the candidates they recruited, remain, even as their good polling has disappeared.

Now let's look at the Republicans. What do they have to show for the last month, beyond their polling high? Not as much as the Democrats got during their moment in the sun.

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True, Rep. Steve Daines (R, MT-AL) announced his long-rumored Senate bid in early November, although he perhaps just delayed his official entry to avoid timing it with the shutdown fight. However, not a single House Democrat has announced his or her retirement (although some are vacating their seats to run for other offices). That includes the nine Democrats who sit in districts that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Rep. Ron Barber (D, AZ-2), who won a very tough reelection in 2012 after his special election victory in Gabby Giffords' old seat, recently announced he would run again in 2014. Other red-district Democrats, like Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), could eventually bow out, but they haven't yet. Republicans would have an easier time winning these seats if they were open.

In the Senate, most analysts have rightly focused intently on the seven Democratic-held Senate seats in states that Romney won: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Republicans have a shot to win every single one of them. But what about other Democratic-held seats, like those in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon? Yes, Obama won all these states, but not overwhelmingly - his best performance was 54.2% in Oregon.

In all of these Obama states, there is at least one quality Republican - and in some cases several - who chose not to run; meanwhile, Democrats have much-ballyhooed candidates in a state that was roughly as Republican as Oregon was Democratic in 2012 (Georgia, 53.2% Romney) and in another state that was much more Republican on the presidential level (Kentucky, 60.5% Romney).

It feels like the Senate playing field is largely set; in an era of perpetual campaigning, heaven forbid that a candidate chooses to enter less than a year before the election. But it doesn't have to be true. In reality, Republicans - and Democrats - still have plenty of time to enter races in most places. Whether any do could tell us a lot about how both parties actually feel about their chances next year - certainly better than any press release bluster could, anyway.

Filing deadlines still largely months away

Quietly, the first mini-milestone on the road to the 2014 midterms passed earlier this week. Monday was the last day for Democratic and Republican candidates to file to run in Illinois primaries. Yes, the Land of Lincoln forces candidates to decide whether to run more than 11 months before Election Day.

Illinois is closely followed by Texas, where the filing deadline is next Monday (Dec. 9).

However, the filing deadlines in most states are months away, in part because the nation's primary season stretches from March all the way through September.

Republicans should have at least a chance to win in six states, but might not because their best candidates remain on the sideline? Well, the nearest filing deadline for any of those seats is March 11 in Oregon - more than three months away. Let's quickly assess the state of play in all six states:

Oregon (March 11 filing deadline): Given that Republicans couldn't win the governorship here in an optimal year - 2010 - and that Sen. Ron Wyden (D) coasted to reelection by nearly 20 points that same year, it's understandable why Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) is in good shape for reelection. But if the national winds were really blowing the Republicans' way, it's not unimaginable that a Republican could beat Merkley, who beat Sen. Gordon Smith (R) by less than four points in 2008's pristine Democratic climate. Granted, Rep. Greg Walden (R, OR-2) already has a big job - chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee - but perhaps he'd do his party a greater service by running here. Maybe one of the actual candidates in the field, like physician Monica Wehby (R), will emerge, but it's a long shot. Crystal Ball rating: Likely Democratic

Iowa (March 14 filing deadline): There's a big catch that probably kept out a lot of bigger name Republicans: If no one gets more than 35% of the vote in the primary, the Republican Senate nominee will be chosen by a convention. Still, Rep. Tom Latham (R, IA-3) - who comfortably won over another incumbent in an Obama district last year - would be a much better general election candidate against presumptive Democratic nominee Rep. Bruce Braley than any of the cast of thousands currently vying for the nomination. Crystal Ball rating: Leans Democratic

Colorado (March 31 filing deadline): Polling here shows both Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Sen. Mark Udall (D) with soft support, and Udall is not doing all that well in trial heats with weak candidates, such as 2010 Senate loser Ken Buck (R). What if well-regarded Rep. Cory Gardner (R, CO-4) reconsidered his decision to pass on the race? We'd certainly reevaluate our current Crystal Ball rating of Likely Democratic.

Michigan (April 22 filing deadline): Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) has cornered the nomination here as she prepares to face Rep. Gary Peters (D, MI-14) for the seat of the retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D). But national Republicans never seemed all that enthusiastic about her candidacy and they pushed Reps. Mike Rogers and Dave Camp to enter, both of whom declined. But there's plenty of time here - more than four months - for either to reverse course. Crystal Ball rating: Leans Democratic

Minnesota (June 3 filing deadline): After the narrowest of wins in 2008, the failure of Republicans to attract a top-tier challenger to Sen. Al Franken (D) remains a mystery. It's possible that one of the many nondescript Republicans running, such as businessman Mike McFadden, will emerge, but Republicans would feel better about investing in Minnesota if Rep. Erik Paulsen (R, MN-3) reconsidered. Again, he has months to do so. He's also sitting on $1.5 million in cash on hand; fundraising for him, or the other potential candidates mentioned here, would not be a problem even with a "late" entrance. We're in a world of SuperPACs, so individual fundraising is not necessarily as important as it once was. Furthermore, Republican funders would be dying to give their money to someone like Paulsen, or many of the others on this list. They are exactly the kinds of candidates the establishment wants elected, as opposed to Tea Partiers. Crystal Ball rating: Likely Democratic

New Hampshire (June 13 filing deadline): Finally, there's the Granite State, where there's actually some buzz around the possibility of former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) switching states and challenging Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). (Brown set Twitter ablaze the other day when he removed "MA," for Massachusetts, from his Twitter name.) Coincidentally, New Hampshire is a state where a candidate who wasn't going to run actually did change his mind and hopped in, but that candidate is ex-Sen. Bob Smith (R), who lost a primary to former Sen. John Sununu (R) in 2002 and has tons of enemies. He's not likely to excite Republicans. Crystal Ball rating: Likely Democratic

Watch the real weathervanes

In politics, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows - you just need a politician. That's why the Democrats' successes in October, combined with some Republican House retirements, were telling: Democrats apparently were making a compelling sale to their candidates that they had a path to victory, and at least a few Republicans were fed up enough to throw in the towel. The polls and the environment were moving politicians both to the entrance and to the exit. Republicans, despite the Democrats' current troubles, haven't forced the same kind of movement.

They still might. Will Democrats in the House, and maybe even the Senate, retire in the face of what they perceive to be a Republican wave? And will Republicans step up in some of the states described above to ride that wave?

As demonstrated by the filing deadlines, there's plenty of time for them to do so.

Note that many of the Republicans who took passes on running for the Senate in blue/purple states are members of the House. They might be paralyzed by fear of the Tea Party, which has a real antipathy toward many sitting members of Congress.

This is another area where the Tea Party is problematic for Republicans: Its presence is quite possibly putting so much fear into quality GOP candidates that they are simply afraid to run for higher office.

Dispelling that fear is the job of national Republican leaders. It's fair to say that they are having difficulty making the sale, but - again - there's more time left on the clock than they might think.

Conclusion

Last cycle, Republicans looked like they were in a good position to win the Senate - until the end of February 2012, when Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) retired. After that point, almost every major Senate development broke against them. What does this cycle hold - what surprises are coming? As should be clear from just the primary filing deadlines, let alone the eventual winners of those primaries, there's plenty of time to go, and plenty of time for members of both parties to create their own surprises.

Kyle Kondik is the Director of Communications at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. A sought after political analyst, he previously served as the Director of Policy and Research for former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.
 

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