Assessing the 2014 Senate Races- Part 1: The West and Midwest

The following is an assessment of the state of the Senate races for 2014 by region starting out west. In Hawaii, Democratic incumbent Brian Schatz will face a primary fight against Democratic Representative Colleen Hanabusa, Daniel Inouye’s hand-chosen successor who was passed over in favor of Schatz. One expects Hanabusa to win this primary and win the general election against whoever runs for the GOP. The bench in Hawaii for the Republicans is very thin and this is a very liberal state. Prediction: Democratic retention.

In Alaska, incumbent Mark Begich faces a tough battle for reelection after facing a token primary opponent. Thankfully, the Republican bench is good in Alaska although Mead Treadwell would have to be considered the front runner at this point. Essentially, this will be a three way race between Treadwell, Dan Sullivan and 2010 Republican nominee Joe Miller who proved to be a disastrous general election campaigner and lost to “independent” Lisa Murkowski. Begich won his last election against Ted Stevens who was under indictment at the time, an indictment that was later dismissed. Still, he barely won that election in a state that twice voted against Obama. Assuming the eventual GOP candidate can stick to the issues most dear to the people of Alaska, it is hard to see Begich pulling this one out. Obama’s approval ratings in Alaska are south of 40% and in a hypothetical match up against Treadwell, he barely survives 44-40% (although that poll is from PPP, a Democratic firm). It should be noted that in this poll, Begich’s approval rating is slightly better than Obama’s. Prediction: Republican pick-up.

The race in Oregon has yet to really take shape as incumbent Jeff Merkley- another Democrat who won with less than 50% of the vote the last time out- faces reelection. Merkley’s latest approval ratings have taken a small dent, but he remains in the area for reelection (greater than 45%). Unfortunately for Republicans, the bulk of the population of Oregon lives along the liberal coastal area. The best chance for a Republican would be one in the “moderate” mold. It is interesting to see candidates like Merkley now scrambling to “fix” Obamacare. Still, it is tough seeing a Republican taking this seat. Prediction: Democratic retention.

Jim Risch in Idaho cannot even draw a Democratic challenger yet, which is the sad state of the Democratic Party in Idaho. Regardless, Risch should crush the eventual sacrificial lamb. Prediction: Republican retention.

In New Mexico, incumbent Tom Udall is up for reelection. In 2008, he crushed a good Republican candidate in Tom Pearce. Thus far, no one has stepped forward for the GOP. With approval ratings hovering above 50% in New Mexico, Udall seems poised for reelection. The best the Republicans can do is perhaps inflict some damage along the way and make it closer than it really should be, but a victory would be a huge upset. Prediction: Democratic retention.

The race in Wyoming became interesting only because Liz Cheney is mounting a primary challenge against incumbent John Enzi, although conservatives should have no problems with Enzi. Thus, Cheney’s primary candidacy may simply be political opportunism. She is not Tea Party per se and it is kind of hard to run against Enzi from the right. As a result, the primary will be the only thing of interest in Wyoming this year with the eventual winner going to Washington. Prediction: The face may change, but Republican retention.

In Montana, incumbent Democrat Max Baucus is retiring thus creating a great opportunity for a Republican victory here. The most likely Republican nominee will be Congressman Steve Daines. The inability of the Democrats to recruit a strong candidate in Montana spells trouble for them. Their best hope was the folksy former governor, Brian Schweitzer, but he declined a bid and there are rumblings that he will not even assist the eventual Democratic nominee. This will be a hard-fought race and the Democrats will fight to keep this seat. However, prediction: Republican pick-up.

No one was talking about the possible loss of a seat in Colorado and incumbent Democrat Mark Udall seemed safe three months ago. But, Obamacare and local issues- namely, gun control- have somewhat changed the dynamics. Udall has suffered from the fallout in Colorado over gun control measures that have dented the approval of Hicklenhooper, and Democrats in general in Colorado. Udall is still in the range of approval for reelection (hovering around 46%), but that could change with the right messaging from the GOP. For the Republicans, it is currently a 4-way race pitting 2010 challenger against Michael Bennett, Ken Buck, against state legislators Randy Baumgardner, Owen Hill and Amy Stephens. Buck would be a huge mistake in purplish Colorado and depending on which poll one consults, would lose anywhere from 3-15 points. Over time, the most consistently close challenger is Randy Baumgardner at about a 5% deficit. Hill and Stephens follow by 6% and 7% deficits respectively. Even with them, it portends a close race. A lot will depend on Udall’s positioning on issues like gun control, immigration reform and Obamacare- three issues that remain divisive in Colorado. Prediction: Although perhaps a toss-up at this point where a lot can change, Democratic retention in a very close race.

Moving to the Midwest, Illinois Democratic incumbent Dick Durbin seeks reelection. Thus far, no Republican challenger has stepped forward. Given his profile, tenure and power in the Senate coupled with the fact that Illinois is a rather liberal state, the only chance for the GOP would be an extremely moderate candidate and the right set of circumstances to unseat Durbin. That may include pictures of Durbin with a donkey in Mexico. Prediction: Democratic retention.

Al Franken is perhaps the biggest joke in the Senate, yet he seems poised for reelection mainly because no quality Republicans have stepped forward. My dream match up would be the ultra-liberal Franken versus the ultra-conservative Michelle Bachmann. Minnesota politics is always weird which is why we have an Al Franken in the Senate (of course, fraud played a huge role). Franken has drawn three potential second or third tier opponents with businessman Mike McFadden likely to play the outsider card. Julianne Ortman would eliminate the “war on women” meme for Franken. Whoever emerges for the GOP, it could be a more interesting race than most think at this point if for no other reason the weirdness of Minnesota politics (come on- they gave us Paul Wellstone, Al Franken and Jesse Ventura). Prediction: Democratic retention.

In Oklahoma, Republican incumbent Jim Inhofe has drawn a little-known challenger in Matt Silverstein (who?). Oklahoma is one of the reddest states in the country and it is difficult to see Inhofe losing to anyone this upcoming year. Prediction: Republican retention.

Although Republican incumbent Pat Roberts has not drawn a Democratic challenger, he will face a bona fide primary challenger in Tea Party activist, Milton Wolfe. Could Kansas be this year’s Utah 2010? In that year, Mike Lee defeated incumbent Republican Bob Bennett for the GOP nod and went on to the Senate. Likewise here in Kansas, it would appear that whoever emerges for the Republicans, they would likely win the general election. Like Oklahoma to the south, Kansas is decidedly red. This is one of those states where whoever the GOP candidate is- establishment, Tea Party, libertarian, etc.- they are the presumed front runner. Thus, Prediction: Republican retention despite the candidate.

In Iowa, uber-liberal Tom Harkin is stepping down presenting Republicans with a unique opportunity. The problem is that no solid challenger has emerged and we are left with B-list people for the Republicans. The Democrats have coalesced early around Bruce Braley. Among Republican voters, not a single declared candidate polls above 10%. The only one who does is undeclared- Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative activist. Ironically, when put up against Braley, he performs the worst among any declared or undeclared candidates. This may come down to either Sam Clovis or Joni Ernst for the GOP against Braley and both currently poll within 7 points of Braley in a general election match up. This will be a closely watched and well-funded race. The Democrats can ill-afford to lose this seat. Given the fact they have Grassley for balance on the other side, prediction: Democratic retention in a close, expensive race.

The resignation of Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson in South Dakota came as no surprise. Almost immediately, former, highly popular Governor Mike Rounds announced his candidacy and would have run even if Johnson did not retire. Given these facts, one would think the Democrats would be more prepared. Instead, they will have to rely on Rick Weiland just to make this race close. Rounds should have no problem dispatching his primary opponents or Democratic opponent. Prediction: Republican pick-up.

In Nebraska, the retirement of Mike Johanns comes as a little surprise and thankfully we are talking about Nebraska here, a solid red state. The only drama will be in the GOP primary as two fairly strong candidates have emerged- Shane Osborn and Ben Sasse. For my money, Sasse wreaks of accomplishment at Midland University having been one of the youngest university presidents in the country. Osborn was formerly the state treasurer. Furthermore, Sasse’s fundraising recently set a Nebraska record for contributions from individual donors at over $800,000. Prediction: Republican retention.

Finally, there is the seat of Carl Levin in Michigan up for grabs as he has announced his retirement. There will be no primary drama as the DNC has essentially cleared the field for Gary Peters on the Democratic side. Meanwhile, since entering the race, Teri Lynn Land has consistently been the choice of the GOP. She is the former Michigan secretary of state. In hypothetical polling against Peters, Land has never been more than 5 points behind and has led in some polls by as much as 5 points or more. Although the Democrats may believe they have their ideal candidate in Michigan, Land is a formidable foe and this race will come down to the wire. This may be a case of the power of labor in Michigan versus the power of women voters in Michigan which may result in a wash and a very, very close final tally (perhaps recount territory). Voter turnout may dictate the winner in this race and one cannot discount the power or organized labor in Michigan. Plus, there is a gubernatorial race this year. Can Land ride Snyder’s coat tails to success, or defeat? In the end, although some view Michigan as a winnable state, I will play devil’s advocate. Prediction: Democratic retention in a close race.

Thus, as of the end of this diary entry, Republicans have picked up three Senate seats putting them half way to the goal of six seats to gain control of the Senate- Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota. Equally important, they retain five of their five seats to be defended in the West and Midwest.

Tomorrow: The South and the Northeast.