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Retirements Highlight GOP's Primary Challenges

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Harkin is among a number of senators who have already announced they won’t be running again in 2014.

Two key Senate retirements in the span of 24 hours last week could have a dramatic effect on the outlook for the majority in the next Congress, a fight that won’t come into focus for well more than a year.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., made his retirement announcement Jan. 25, followed the morning of Jan. 26 by the news that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is also declining to seek re-election next year. In both states, the opposing party believes its chances are now starkly improved.

Republicans believe their odds of retaking the majority in the Senate for the first time since 2006 are on the rise. Yet hanging over the GOP’s prospects remains a troubling cloud that thwarted its efforts in the past two cycles — competitive Republican primaries that proved costly in the general election. The damage wrought has come in different forms — from deeply flawed nominees to busted war chests to difficult pivots to the general — and left the GOP six seats shy of the majority.

Whether Republicans can avoid such complications this cycle could be the determining factor in how close the party approaches that goal on a playing field that is undeniably tilted in its favor.

“My guess is there will be competitive primaries in most of these places. Open seats and vulnerable Democrats don’t come around very often, so it makes sense that more than one person in the state wants to run for that seat,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, a partner at FP1 Strategies and a former executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s something we’ve had to deal with previously, and I think we’ll have to deal with in the future.”

In addition to Harkin and Chambliss, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is also retiring. More retirements are likely to come, and there is a push from Democratic leaders for senators considering retirement to announce earlier rather than later, as the party faces the reality of defending 20 of the 33 Senate seats up this cycle. (There are also specials in Hawaii and South Carolina.) Their defensive stance includes seats in seven states that went to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

With two retirements already announced, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg are the two other Democratic incumbents on retirement watch. Others may come as well, but almost all vulnerable Democratic incumbent senators are expected to seek re-election, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana.

“There’s no doubt that the retirements of at least two Democrats in key states represent good news and add to growing momentum for Senate Republicans,” NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “But it’s a long cycle ahead, and so our side will stay focused, do the hard work and take nothing for granted.”

The retirements of Harkin, who represents a swing state Obama won, and Rockefeller provide instant GOP pickup opportunities. For Republicans, the more Democratic open seats the better, but their own open seat in Georgia is more complicated, as Chambliss was the GOP incumbent most vulnerable to a primary challenge.

A drawn-out primary for an incumbent who ultimately loses can suck the oxygen out of fundraising and drain the overall momentum for the general. The GOP likely would have been better off last year had Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar not toiled through the primary before losing in May to state Treasurer Richard E. Mourdock. Had he retired, it might have spurred a better candidate to jump in.

Still, Georgia provides Democrats with perhaps their best pickup opportunity. The fact that a state that hasn’t voted Democrat for president since 1992 sits atop the party’s target list speaks volumes about how the cycle is stacked up against Democrats. But that possibility is in no small part because of the crush of Republicans expected to seriously consider running and the ugly intraparty contest that could ensue.

The stable of potential candidates in Georgia is filled with essentially the state’s entire roster of Republican congressmen. Reps. Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland top that list, but it also includes Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Tom Graves, along with a few state officials. Democrats have a couple of attractive potential candidates in Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a rising star in the party, and Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow.

Harkin’s departure in Iowa makes that seat more vulnerable for Democrats, given the loss of a trusted name brand and the sizable coffers Harkin wielded. But it’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to avoid an ideologically driven primary, especially if Rep. Steve King runs. That’s a concern for GOP strategists.

Rockefeller’s absence plus the candidacy of Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito equals a seat in even greater jeopardy. But how perilous a situation Democrats find themselves in West Virginia or Iowa will depend on the results of those GOP primaries, which already appear ripe for competition.

Other possible GOP primary hot spots include: Alaska, where Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller, a tea party favorite, are considering a challenge to Begich; South Dakota, where former Gov. Michael Rounds may find company in the GOP primary for a chance at Johnson’s seat; and Louisiana, where an unpredictable jungle primary process could complicate the GOP’s efforts against Landrieu.

In the 2010 and 2012 cycles, Republican primaries produced candidates who ultimately wasted winnable opportunities with an inability to attract support among the general electorate. That includes high-profile misfires such as 2010 nominee Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and conservative Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who last year lost a top target for the party after controversial remarks about “legitimate rape.”

The primaries also clearly took their toll on more mainstream nominees such as former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who emerged from a Republican primary fight to the right underfunded and ill-prepared for the onslaught of Democratic ads that landed immediately on TV.

Democrats argue the top 2012 GOP recruits such as Thompson, former Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg and George Allen, a former governor and senator from Virginia, who all lost, were tied too closely to an unpopular GOP brand and the nation’s capital.

“Being steeped in Washington and too branded in the D.C. brine is as much their problem as the rape comments,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said.

Still, Republicans like the look of the map as it stands today.

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