The Senate 2014- State of the Races, Part 1

The Senate elections in 2014 present yet another unique opportunity for the GOP to gain control of that body in Congress. Of the 33 races, 19 seats are held by Democrats with six of those Senators announcing their retirement. Of the 14 Republican seats up for reelection, only two incumbents (and possibly a third) have announced their reirement, but both are in fairly reliable red states. This is the first of a seven part series focusing on where the races stand at this early point in time. Starting out west, this entry will focus on the races in Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico and Oregon.

Oregon is perhaps the easiest of these races with Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley up for reelection. Merkley won in 2008 defeating Gordon Smith, but with less than 50% of the popular vote. Smith has ruled out a rematch after a heartbreaking and grueling loss to Merkley in the Obama wave of 2008 after serving two terms in the Senate. He is currently head of the National Association of Broadcasters and head of the Mormon Church in the northeast and lives in Bethesda, maryland where he intends to stay. Another possible opponent, Rep. Greg Walden essentially ruled out any run when he became Chairman of the NRCC for the 2014 cycle. That leaves potentially businessman Rick Miller who founded and heads Avamere, an Oregon-based health care company. With Walden and Smith out of the picture, unless some surprise name comes along, this is clearly a safe Democratic seat. Incidentally, Merkley is considered by many to be the most liberal sitting Senator, to the left of Sherrod Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse.

In New Mexico, incumbent Tom Udall seems to similarly situated, albeit less solidly so. Unlike Oregon, there are possible real challengers if they wish to take the plunge. Thus far, 2012 candidate Heather Wilson has ruled herself out and for good reason. If she could not capture an open seat in 2012, it is doubly hard to do so against an incumbent. Jon Barela, who lost a Congressional race in 2010 to Martin Heinrich by only 4 points also has ruled himself out for now, although he was highly sought to run and the GOP in New Mexico may eventually move him in that direction. Three other names have been mentioned by party officials. The first is Lt. Governor John Sanchez who dropped a bid in 2012 before the primary. Another is Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry who, being the mayor of a large growing city, would command some attention. Thus far, the only one mentioning any interest is Allen Weh, the former state party chairman, who waged a primary battle against Susannah Martinez in the 2010 guvernatorial race. No matter who runs, it will be an uphill task unseating Udall in New Mexico, perhaps the bluest of the southwestern states.

Out in Hawaii, there will be a special election involving incumbent Brian Schatz who was appointed to the seat after the death of Daniel Inouye. Schatz was not the preferred replacement by Inouye, he preferring Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. Thus, the drama begins. Schatz has every intention of running and would likely have the backing of Governor Neil Abercrombie. Hanabusa is the choice of the deceased ex-Senator who was an icon in Hawaiian politics since Hawaii became a state. This will make for a very interesting primary on the Democratic side and under equal considerations, might present an opening for the GOP but for one thing: a weak Republican bench. Only two GOP candidates have been offered as possibilities and both are well-known and both are recent losers- former Governor Linda Lingle who lost a Senate bid in 2012, and Charles Djou who lost a congressional bid. Lingle had no trouble raising money in 2012 and her campaign infrastructure is likely still in place. The question is whether she can stomach another run. In the case of Djou, he too is a perfect GOP candidate for a blue, Democratic state. Working in both their favors this time out is the fact Obama will not be at the top of the ticket. Most likely, Schatz would be the more beatable of the two Democratic candidates with Hanabusa being almost a lock for the Senate if she is nominee.

The other western state is Alaska where first term Democratic incumbent Mark Begich is up for reelection. Begich slipped into office replacing Ted Stevens who was under indictment (charges later dismissed) but who died in an airplane crash. Even still, the margin of victory was not overwhelming and, in fact, most political pundits put this race into the pure toss-up category. Begich’s seat may represent one of the best seat pick-up opportunities among those not retiring. However, first the GOP must get past itself.

Thus far, there are only two somewhat-declared candidates- Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller. First, it is interesting to note some names that decided against a run. Sean Parnell, the current Governor was likely recruited by the national GOP to run and would have likely defeated Begich, but Parnell opted to run for another term in Juneau. Likewise, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan rebuffed requests to run.

Before getting to Treadwell and Miller, there are other names being mentioned. Federal judge Tim Burgess has been mentioned and would be a favorite of the Alaska GOP establishment. He is being talked up as a possibility by Lisa Murkowski. However, as a federal judge he has job security and it would have to take a lot of soul-searching to give up that job for a Senate run. Former Lt. Governor Loren Leman has also been mentioned. Leman’s political career is punctuated by fiscal discipline, environmental concerns, and social conservatism. That may be recipe for success in fairly red Alaska. Former state AG Daniel S. Sullivan is another possibility and has the advantage of DC experience having served in the Bush White House and State Department. There are also rumblings that several Tea Party groups are attempting to persuade Sarah Palin to run against Begich. Certainly the most known of all the candidates, it would certainly shine a huge national spotlight on Alaska politics. The darkhorse possibility is state senator Lesil McGuire who has built up a resume of economic development support in Alaska. She has also mentioned in some quarters, although 2014 may not be her time just yet.

Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell has a background in business and in government having served on the Arctic Research Council where he represented the needs of Alaska against environmentalists and regulatory bureaucrats. He and Parnell won by over 20 percentage points over their Democratic rivals in 2010. Since Parnell is a fairly popular Governor, his association with Treadwell would likely rub off and be to his advantage.

That being said, assuming no one else enters the race, he will have to get by Joe Miller who ran in 2010 as the GOP candidate having defeated Lisa Murkowski for that honor. However, Murkowski spearheaded a write-in campaign as an independent and won, although she is technically a Republican. The 2010 campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Miller was supported by Tea Party groups and Palin and even Leman in 2010 against both Murkowski and the Democat whose name everyone in Alaska has forgotten by now. If Murkowski had no started a write-in effort, Miller may be a Senator today but for some of his campaign antics.

In the final analysis, Treadwell may likely be the best choice to run against Begich. A Miller candidacy is rife with pitfalls. Additionally, his series of lawsuits challenging the Murkowski victory in 2010 may not sit well with voters after they elected her to office. Miller’s entry into the race has upset the applecart as concerns the Alaska GOP establishment who sees a real chance to deliver the Republicans a seat out of Alaska. Just recently, Miller has more or relished the thought that he has caused some anguish to the Alaska Republican establishment by declaring his candidacy.

Of all the races in the far west, Alaska will be by far the most watched. The most recent poll of Begich’s popularity rating in the state indicates a decline. In February he stood at 48%; today, he is at 41%. However, that may be more an indication of voter disgust with Washington in general rather than disapproval of the man himself. As proof, that same poll found that the popularity rating of lisa Murkowski also showed a drop. The problem for the Democrats is that Murkowski is not running this year; Begich is.

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