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Senate's Democratic Class of '08 Faces New Challenges

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Hagan, who hails from one of the two states the president lost in 2012, is one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election this cycle.

It’s still early in the cycle, but only a few challengers have emerged to take on this class. Democrats may be in trouble if several of these races look more competitive down the road than they do now.

Given their states’ unpredictable political dynamics, Franken and Shaheen could be in for competitive races depending on who steps up to challenge them. Franken defeated Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in 2008 by 312 votes in the smallest Senate race margin in the country. Shaheen defeated then-Sen. John E. Sununu by 7 points in the swingy Granite State.

But so far, no top-tier Republicans have proactively looked into running against either senator.

The Udalls, Merkley and Warner remain ranked as the least vulnerable of the lot. They may not have changed in the past six years, but the political demography of their states has.

Ten years ago, Democrats passed over Mark Udall for Senate because they viewed him as too liberal for a statewide bid in Colorado. The state has moved to the left, exemplified by its vote to legalize marijuana last November.

His cousin, Tom Udall, who won by 22 points in 2008, hails from a state with a booming Hispanic population that, as a result, finally fell off the GOP’s map last cycle.

It’s hard to see Merkley, who defeated GOP Sen. Gordon H. Smith by 3 points in 2008, losing in a state as Democratic as Oregon. Meanwhile, Virginia Republicans aren’t publicly broaching the subject yet of how to take on Warner, the most popular politician in a state that’s increasingly voted for Democrats in recent cycles.

Defense will be a priority for Democrats this cycle, with seven seats up in states that the president lost and with few offensive opportunities. At this point, Democrats appear to have a chance to pick up just two Republican seats — in Georgia and Kentucky, both of which Obama lost handily.

With that, holding all or most of the seats the party won in 2008 is vital.

“It’s going to be a tough economy that they’re running in, and the national agenda is not always going to be the best for them,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “I think they knew that coming in, and I think they’ve been prepared for it for a while.”

Democrats hope the incumbents running in the toughest states are able to follow the example of people such as Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who won re-election last year in a state Obama lost by double digits.

“It’s still going to be a hard fight, but with each one of these guys, I could make a legitimate argument,” Democratic pollster Jef Pollock said. “Begich and Hagan are for sure the toughest, but I like where they sit right now.”

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