The Senate 2014: Another Opportunity (Yet Again)

For the third consecutive cycle, Republicans will have the opportunity to gain control of the Senate in 2014. Assuming midterm trends hold true, they should also retain the House. In what can best described as a disappointing year for the GOP, performances in the House were the one small bright spot. The losses were in states where it was anticipated- mainly, California, Illinois and New York. In the Senate, there is no need to rehash the losses in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and, most egregiously, Indiana and Missouri. Hopefully, lessons were learned.

There is some controversy here and elsewhere as to the ideal candidate to run. The best one is the most electable one given the dynamics of the state. It makes sense to run the most conservative candidate in states where Republicans have either no chance of losing, or no chance of winning. In either case, it creates a net zero situation. For example, some states are simply liberal- New York, Maryland, Vermont, etc. Even a moderate or liberal Republican is not going to unseat a Chuck Schumer, Barbara Mikulski, or Bernie Sanders. So, it does not hurt to run the most conservative candidate against them. Likewise, Utah 2010 or Texas 2012 illustrates that in deep red states, the conservative candidate, whether strict or moderately so, will win.

But, not every state fits into these neat categories. And the dynamics of the state also play a role. Massachusetts is a liberal state through and through, yet Scott Brown won a seat in the Senate nevertheless because of the dynamics at the time. Part of those dynamics was a weak opponent who took Brown for granted and the fight over Obamacare at the time. Yet, even Brown’s subsequent obvious moderation could not save his seat in 2012 as the state reverted to its true liberal form.

In 2014. thirteen Republican seats must be defended. Thus far, six incumbents have announced their intentions to run for reelection. Those not announcing their intentions are all likely to be reelected. In fact, the only thing keeping any Republican incumbent from being reelected is the Republican Party itself, not an opposing Democrat. Let us take the case of Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Most would generally agree that Kentucky is a red state, but look at the 2010 Senatorial election. Rand Paul ran to replace one of the most conservative members of the Senate- Jim Bunning- and had to overcome a tough primary fight. The general election result was not a given until his opponent went over the line with attacks that tipped the race in Paul’s favor. That is, Kentucky- like Tennessee also- is not necessarily as red as most think. A staunch, to-the-right-of-McConnell candidate versus a credible, moderate Democrat is no sure victory for the GOP.

The more conservative elements in the party need to be careful when picking their battles. It may make perfect sense to take on a Bennett in Utah (2010) or Enzi in Wyoming (this year), but taking on a McConnell, Alexander, Graham, or Collins places the race at risk. Upsetting the apple cart because you can is what has doomed electoral success. Likewise, the the more moderate Republicans need to be more accepting of the more conservative voices in the party. Put downs of the Tea Party, like those expressed by Lugar, only serve as fodder for the Democrats and liberals. Automatic rejection of a candidate based on disagreement over a particular issue should be left to the Democrats. There is a place for pro-choice Republicans in the Party if the majority of their remaining views are more conservative. Regardless, the pro-choice Republican is in the minority in the party.

Republicans need to take six seats in 2014 and luckily there are six prime Democratic targets: Begich in Alaska, Franken in Minnesota, Shaheen in New Hampshire, Hagan in North Carolina, Johnson in South Dakota and now Rockefeller in West Virginia. There are also three secondary targets which I like to refer to as the marked Marks.

West Virginia: Taking down Rockefeller will take the perfect candidate. Despite the state’s general palpable disdain for Obama and its recent lurch to the right, Rockefeller remains an institution in the state. Shelley Moore Capito’s decision to run against him forces him into either retirement or the fight of his life. Already, there is conservative grumbling against her candidacy; she is not conservative enough for the likes of Jim DeMint or the Club for Growth. Demint and the Club for Growth need to ask themselves two questions: “Can she win?” and “Would I rather want Capito or Rockefeller in the Senate?” If they answer, “Yes, she can win” and “Capito,” then they need to simply shut up.

South Dakota: Likewise, there will likely be some grumbling against the decision by former Governor Mike Rounds to take on Johnson. They will object to his “politically centrist” moniker and certain views. However, one needs to consider the fact that Rounds left office with a 71% approval rating. I would also posit the position that South Dakota is not as red as many would have us believe. After all, they did elect Johnson and gave us George McGovern.

North Carolina: This is considered a key swing state that leans red. In 2008, Hagan defeated Elizabeth Dole with 53% of the vote in a Democratic wave year. The Democratic Party in the Tar Heel State is a basket case on life support with little to suggest hope in the near future. Hence, a strong challenge will likely be mounted with the best bet being Thom Tillis, the current Speaker of the state house. Under his leadership, the GOP captured the lower house in North Carolina for the first time in 20 years. If not Tillis, then state senator Phillip Berger or even current representative Renee Ellmers would make great candidates.

New Hampshire: There is much hoopla over this state. Both Senators are women as are both representatives and the Governor. It is the year of the woman in New Hampshire. But the interest ends there. the fact is that Nancy Shaheen won in 2008 with only 52% of the vote in a Democratic wave year. She, like Hagan, clearly rode Obama’s coat tails to victory. In 2014, there is no Obama at the top of the ticket to rely on. John Sununu is chomping at the bits to take on Shaheen in a rematch. Given their recent propensity to recycle candidates back to Washington, Shaheen’s reelection is no given.

Alaska: Begich won under unusual circumstances in 2008. Running against a Republican incumbent under federal indictment, he still only managed 48% of the vote. Alaska is reliably red; a Democrat could not even defeat a fractured Republican Party in 2010. A Begich victory, despite his attempts to position himself as a moderate and away from Obama on some issues, is not guaranteed. Any viable candidate can take him down (which leaves out Joe Miller). Some names mentioned are Mead Treadwell, Loren Leman, Dean Sullivan, and Sean Parnell. Whoever runs for the GOP, Begich’s days in the Senate are numbered unless the GOP holds to recent form and shoot themselves in their foot in Alaska.

Minnesota: The smug, arrogant Al Franken is up for reelection. Considering that he won with a dismal 42% of the vote in a controversial race that proves the existence of voter fraud, someone needs to slap that smug smile off his face. For a state has reliably voted Democratic for President recently, the Republican bench is deep here. For pure entertainment value, a Franken-Bachmann race would be great. But, I want a win, not entertainment. Michelle Bachmann has name recognition and fundraising ability. But, since she can barely win her own congressional district, it is doubtful she would win a statewide race. She also has that uncanny ability to stick her foot in her own mouth. Instead, the GOP needs a candidate that can illustrate what an embarrassment Al Franken is to the people of Minnesota and that he is fundamentally out of touch with his constituents. Unfortunately- right or wrong- Democrats can apply the same paint to Bachmann. In a race of two perceived nut cases, the incumbent wins. A more reliable and less polarizing conservative alternative to Franken would be John Kline or Erik Paulsen. One must also consider former state representative Laura Brod. Once considered the heir-apparent to Tim Pawlenty (medical issues intervened), her candidacy would remove one of Franken’s biggest talking points- the “war on women.”

Which brings me to the marked Marks. These are secondary targets of opportunity- Mark Pryor or Arkansas, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Mark Udall of Colorado. As far as federal elections go recently, Arkansas is increasingly red. Pryor has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat not beholden to party ideology. However, as Roll Call reports, he has voted 95% of the time with the Obama agenda. His vote for Obamacare will hang around his neck like an albatross in 2014 IF the Republican Party holds his feet to the fire. The two names most mentioned are current Representatives Tom Cotton and Bob Womack.

In Colorado, Udall is no sure bet for the Democrats. This state is considered “purple,” yet has sided with Obama in the past two elections. Udall won in 2008, again on the coat tails of Obama. There are several decent Republican potential candidates (which leaves ken Buck out of the mix). They are former Governor Bob Beauprez and Tom Coffman, a Representative. Although the Tea Party may object, there is always Sue Norton who lost the GOP primary in 2010 to Ken Buck. However, the name that most Democrats fear as an opponent is 4th District Congressman Corey Gardner. Representing the portion of Colorado to the east of Denver, his candidacy would likely appeal to the rural and suburban voter alike.

The latest story line developing which is sending tingles up the legs of conservatives everywhere is the possible candidacy of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against Mark Warner. He certainly would be the most conservative alternative. But the key to statewide victory in Virginia is winning the northern suburbs of DC and even the exurbs. No doubt, Cuccinelli would trounce Warner downstate. Instead, the GOP should consider one of two other people: Bob McDonnell or Jamie Radtke. I would rate this race on the outer fringes of a GOP victory, so why not run the relative unknown who performed rather decently in the 2012 primary against George Allen- Jamie Radtke. She has credibility with the Tea Party. Most importantly, why would McDonnell risk a loss to Warner and jeopardize future political aspirations. Radtke would be the best middle of the road option between the political aspirations of McDonnell and the potential polarization of Cuccinelli.

Of course, there are other Democratic incumbents where situations as 2014 approaches may make them vulnerable to defeat. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana represents a state increasingly hostile to Democrats unless you live in New Orleans. Two dinosaurs- Sander Levin in Michigan and Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey- are on the retirement watch. Other than Candice Miller in Michigan, no electable Republicans exist in either state. Additionally, there is talk that Durbin may retire in Illinois and accept a cabinet position (highly unlikely). in Illinois, there are enough recently defeated GOP congressmen that can run for the seat should it open up. More likely is an open seat in Massachusetts where there are rumors John Kerry may accept a cabinet position. Tom Harkin, a old-fashioned midwestern liberal, is the last of a dying breed running in a state that split down the middle ideologically. Tom Latham would provide stiff competition against Harkin. And up in Montana, Max Baucus is a high profile Democrat who has to walk a fine line in a fairly conservative state. The Democrats fear current Governor Brian Schweitzer potentially challenging him in a primary, but I believe he has his eyes on 2016, not 2014. Regardless, Republicans have a number of names ready to take on Baucus.

The bottom line is that once again, the Democratic targets are many and the vulnerable Republicans few. Most threats to Republican incumbents come from within the party, not from Democrats. Assuming the GOP keeps the House, the GOP is in a good position to take the Senate in 2014 and make the last two years of the Obama presidency and agenda a living hell. The only thing preventing this is the Republican Party itself!