If Democrats are concerned about the lopsided Senate playing field this cycle, just wait until 2014.
An early scan of next cycle’s Senate landscape paints a favorable picture for the GOP, which will defend 13 seats to Democrats’ 20. There is a noticeable dearth of competitive Republican seats, while several Democrats will be automatic targets based on geography.
“Three years out, it’s hard not to see this as being a wipeout for Senate Democrats,” said Republican strategist Michael Meyers of Target Point. “Not having a single pickup opportunity just makes your map so tough to try to control.”
Eight first-term Democrats up for re-election in 2014 won their first races in a uniquely positive climate for the party, with President Barack Obama helping candidates with his coattails across the country. In turn, the waves of 2006 and 2008 have now led to difficult situations for Democrats in a far less favorable environment for the party.
“Some of them barely got through last time in probably the best atmosphere they’re going to ever have,” Meyers said.
Add in potential retirements and incumbents routinely in precarious re-elections, and Democrats are facing another tough cycle. From Alaska to North Carolina, South Dakota to Arkansas and New Hampshire to Louisiana, there is a potential for the dominoes to fall in the right direction for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The same was true heading into 2012, with Democrats defending 23 seats, including in competitive states such as Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota — just to name the most vulnerable. While Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leadership feels better about this cycle than it did a year ago, Republicans believe they have a strong chance to win control of the Senate with almost half of the Democratic-held seats in play.
As for 2014, Democrats argue that they elected candidates in 2008 who fit their states and that there are in fact opportunities for expanding the traditional playing field. Martha McKenna, a former DSCC political director who is running the independent expenditure program for the committee this cycle, noted that Democrats had late-breaking opportunities for offense in 2008 in states such as Kentucky and Georgia. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spent almost $21 million to survive his 2008 challenge, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) spent $13 million and was forced into a runoff.
There is also a belief within GOP circles in Georgia that Chambliss could be vulnerable in a primary.
“What’s changed since 2008 is the power of the tea party in a Republican primary,” McKenna said. “That could be incredibly destabilizing and provide us with opportunity.” While there is certainly room for improvement for Democrats in 2014, the early imbalance of competitive states is equally as stark as in the current cycle.
In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) defeated former Sen. Ted Stevens (R) one week after Stevens was found guilty of corruption charges in federal court — a ruling that was thrown out five months later. Begich, then mayor of Anchorage, won by fewer than 4,000 votes.
Alaska Republicans for now are focusing on winning the nonpartisan Anchorage mayoral race in April, but they are looking forward to a second run against Begich, who became the first Alaska Democrat to win a Senate seat in 34 years.
Among the other Democrats with the potential for a competitive challenge are Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Al Franken (Minn.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Mark Warner (Va.).
“One interesting thing to watch will be how the 2012 result impacts the 2014 political environment,” Republican strategist Dan Judy of North Star Opinion Research said. “Since midterms are typically, although not always, bad for the party holding the presidency, an Obama loss might not be the worst thing for vulnerable Democrats in 2014.”
But Democratic strategist Steve Murphy argued that if the economy continues improving, the traditional thinking could change. “Conventional wisdom is the [president’s] second-term midterm is the ninth level of political hell for the party in power,” Murphy said. “But the economy could put the lie to that assumption.”
Some of the states likely to have a race in 2014 are hosting a competitive Senate contest right now, so it’s a little early to talk seriously about potential candidates in most states.
However, Republicans in Virginia can already picture a battle between Warner and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), if McDonnell doesn’t become the next vice president. It would be the third-straight Virginia Senate race featuring two former governors. Warner has put himself in a strong position financially, raising $490,000 in the fourth quarter and beginning 2012 with more than $2.9 million in the bank.
In South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) said last week he is giving “serious thought” to running against Johnson and spoke with Sen. John Thune (R) about the logistics of traveling back and forth to Capitol Hill, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Retirements are a reality every cycle for both parties, but just as in 2012, Democrats would likely be affected more adversely than Republicans in 2014. The seats of Johnson, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who raised just more than $5,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011, and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who raised $46,000, would be vulnerable if they decided to retire. Even Illinois could be competitive if Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D) opted against returning in 2015.
Rockefeller spokesman Vincent Morris said the Democrat “loves his work in the Senate and intends to run again when the time comes.”
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who will be 90 by the time Election Day 2014 rolls around, is “absolutely planning on running again,” a Democrat familiar with the Senator’s thinking said. Any retirement rumors are based solely on his age because Lautenberg has “done nothing to let anybody else know that anything else is a possibility,” the source said.
On the Republican side, there is extensive chatter among Mississippi insiders that Sen. Thad Cochran could be considering retirement. He raised just $18,000 in the fourth quarter and had $326,000 on hand, though money is unlikely to be an issue should the Appropriations ranking member decide to run.
“There are a whole lot of Mississippians from both parties who put their heads on the pillow at night hoping Thad Cochran runs again in 2014,” John Keast, a former chief of staff to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said of the powerful appropriator.
Abby Livingston and Joshua Miller contributed to this report.