2014 Senate a Year Out, Part 1: The Races in the West

Punditry a year and a half away is always fraught with pitfalls. Incumbents may decide against reelection, primaries have yet to be held, scandals may happen and the political landscape may change. But, it is always a fun exercise to predict things, so here goes with the 2014 Senate races in the west.

HAWAII: Brian Schatz was named by the Governor to fulfill the term of the deceased Daniel Inouye. The choice was not without some controversy in that it was allegedly Inouye’s dying wish that current congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa receive that appointment. So, it remains to be seen what happens from here since Schatz has indicated that he will run in 2014 for the full term. That potentially sets up a Democratic primary fight between him and Hanabusa. Democrat versus Democrat fights are always fun to watch as they often illustrate the hypocrisy of liberal causes as they try to “out liberal” one another. That is probably the only good thing about the California system with respect to Congresspeople.
On the Republican side, given her serious trouncing in 2012, it is highly doubtful that former GOP Governor Linda Lingle will give it another go. Instead, the most likely candidate will be Charles Djou, the former Congressman who served a shortened term, but lost in the general election. In his brief tenure in Congress, he received generally good reviews back in Hawaii. Of course, we are talking about Hawaii here where any Republican is essentially what many would call a RINO. However, in the interest of taking the Senate, Republican in-fighting has to be at a minimum. Does Djou have a realistic chance of winning? Probably not, but he can draw some Democratic money into a race they really count as a definite win in their column. PREDICTION: Safe Democrat

ALASKA: Alaska represents a major opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in the Senate. To announce that incumbent Democrat Mark Begich is targeted would be an understatement. Remember that under the best of circumstances for him in 2008, he barely won and took less than 50% of the popular vote. Also, Alaska is a fairly reliable red state. According to GovTrack, Begich is a rank-and-file Democrat influenced by fellow Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. OUCH!! Being from an energy producing state, Begich needs to be careful with his votes; he needs to come off as protective of domestic oil and gas exploration. However, many of his votes in the Senate thus far have mirrored the Obama alternative energy agenda.

Unlike Hawaii, the GOP bench in Alaska is a bit deeper. Current Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell heads the list and has formed an exploratory committee for a Senate run. It would make sense since his term expires in 2014. As a member of the Arctic Research Commission, he resigned not only to run for his current job, but because of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to move on suggestions of the commission. Another name mentioned is former Lt. Governor Loren Leman. He is described as a social conservative, pro-business and environmentally conscious politician and former 14-year member of the Alaska legislature. He is considered the legislative force behind Alaska’s constitutional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and he pushed through abortion parental notification legislation. A third name mentioned is former state attorney general Dan Sullivan who has experience in Washington having served on Bush’s National Economic Council. Association with Bush, however, could be a double-edged sword. Finally, there is the ever-present debacle named Joe Miller. A Miller candidacy would most likely be handing this seat back to the Democrats. Treadwell got a head start here and has to be the prohibitive front runner at this early stage, but Loren Leman may be the best choice should he decide to run and a choice Alaskans and conservatives can rally around. Prediction: Likely Republican Pick-Up

OREGON: Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley seems fairly safe in his reelection efforts and would likely run unopposed in a primary. The problem for the GOP in Oregon is a fairly weak field of potential contenders which, to date, numbers one: businessman Rick Miller. However, those reports are being dismissed by many of his associates. The other name that was originally mentioned was Oregon’s only GOP congressman, Greg Walden. But given his current role within the Republican Party, it would likely preclude a Senate run. Merkley won in 2008 after a 3 point victory in his primary and then a three point victory in the general election against an incumbent Republican who was swept out of office on Obama’s coat tails. It will not be that close this time, Obama or no Obama. Considered a far left Democrat (think Barbara Boxer, Pat Leahy and Sherrod Brown), the best the GOP can hope for here is to ding his image a little and attack the liberal Democratic brand, but do not expect a victory. Prediction: Safe Democrat

IDAHO: Republican incumbent Jack Risch will likely win reelection to the Senate. As of this date, no Democratic contenders are even being mentioned as the sacrificial lamb. PREDICTION: Safe Republican

WYOMING: Again, Republican incumbent Mike Enzi will likely sail to victory against any Democrat in perhaps the reddest of red states. Like Idaho, no Democrat has even been mentioned as of this time. One possible scenario is for Liz Cheney to possibly mount a primary challenge, but despite the clout of the Cheney name in Wyoming, it would be doubtful she would prevail. PREDICTION: Safe Republican

COLORADO: Some within the Republican Party believe that Democratic incumbent Mark Udall is a vulnerable target this year. Considered a rank-and-file Democrat along the lines of a Harry Reid, that right there should give residents of Colorado some reservations. He will likely seek reelection and would be the prohibitive front runner entering the general election. Thus far, the problem for the GOP is recruiting a viable candidate. The name most often mentioned and the one that Democrats fear the most given his political prowess is current Congressman Cory Gardner. However, every indication from Gardner’s camp is that he will not seek a run against Udall in 2014. Instead, there are rumors that former congressman Bob Beauprez may be recruited. Winning in 2002 by only 121 votes in a swing district, he later ran statewide for Governor in 2006 and lost. Beauprez may be just a little too conservative for purple Colorado. Former Lt. Governor Jane Norton may give it another tried having failed to win her party’s primary in 2010 to eventual loser Ken Buck. Then there is current state attorney general John Suthers, one of the first to challenge the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obamacare. Other than that decision, Suthers has led his office in prosecutions of white collar crime and natural resource litigation and has won cases before the US Supreme Court. Although Norton has the greater name recognition, Suthers may be more palatable to conservatives and may just be as electable as Norton statewide. PREDICTION: Leans Democrat

MONTANA: Incumbent Democrat Max Baucus finds himself in the same situation fellow Democrat Jon Tester found himself in in 2012- vulnerable. Tester won his reelection effort. Hailing from right of center Montana, Baucus has to play the role of moderate Democrat. There were rumors that outgoing Governor Dan Schweitzer might challenge him in a primary, but Schweitzer himself dismissed that idea. On the GOP side, the first name mentioned is former state senator Corey Stapleton who lost a Republican primary bid for Governor in 2012. After eight years in the state senate, Stapleton was considered a fiscal hawk and received high praise from the Heritage Foundation. Current attorney general, having won in 2012, Tim Fox has also been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate. He ran on a platform of challenging Obamacare and although Obama won reelection, he insists there is still leeway to allow Montana to resist the worst of Obamacare. The one troubling aspect of Fox is his defense of Montana’s strict campaign finance laws which were basically struck down by the Supreme Court last term with minimal comment. Finally, there is Montana legislator Champ Edmunds who represents the electorally important Missoula area of Montana. If you really wanted to go the staunch conservative route, this is your man. However, he has come under attack in his home state for what some may consider gaffes. Hopefully, one would hope the GOP has learned the Akin lesson. Edmunds may be a risky choice and likely be painted as too far out of the mainstream even for Montana by his detractors. Given Stapleton’s inability to win a statewide gubernatorial primary and the possibility of Edmunds inserting his foot in his mouth, Fox could parlay his faults into a populist pro-Montana message that may resonate through the general election. PREDICTION: TOSS UP

NEW MEXICO: The other Udall, Tom, is up for reelection in New Mexico for the Democratic Party. Like his brother, he is considered a rank-and-file Democrat. Unlike Colorado, which many consider purple, New Mexico has drifted more to the Democratic column in recent years. Unfortunately, Republicans ran perhaps their best chance in 2012- Heather Wilson- in an open race and still lost. It will be even tougher against an incumbent like Udall. The only name mentioned thus far is Lt. Governor John Sanchez. He initially tried for Bingaman’s seat in 2012 taking on Greg Sowards and eventual nominee Heather Wilson. He ran to the right of Wilson initially, but dropped out when he failed to get any substantial traction in the polls or on the fundraising trail. In 2002, he ran for Governor after serving only two years in the state legislature, eventually losing to Bill Richardson. Ironically, one of the main stories out of that race was his alleged use of illegal workers in his roofing business and a dubious padding of his business resume which the Richardson campaign described as being “ethically challenged.” Of course, it was Richardson who faced scandal as Governor before withdrawing his name for an Obama cabinet position. Most likely, these issues are still fresh in the minds of New Mexico voters with respect to Sanchez. Although the GOP can certainly use some Hispanic, conservative candidates in states with large or growing Hispanic populations, John Sanchez would be rolling the dice here. In all probability, this seat will remain in Democratic hands. PREDICTION: Likely Democrat

Next: Part 2- the Midwest- Iowa, Illinois, Kansas,Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota