In a recent article for the Rothenberg Political Report on the 2014 Senate elections, Nathan L. Gonzales argues that ”the road to the Republican Senate majority is easier than you think.” Gonzales correctly points out that Republicans do not have to win a seat in a single state won by President Obama in order to win a Senate majority and posits that Republicans “have considerable room for error” in winning a Senate majority.
In this post, I provide a different interpretation of what the national GOP lean of several of these states means for the Republican Party’s chances of winning a Senate majority in 2014. Despite the fact that seven Democratic-held Senate races will take place in states won by Mitt Romney, winning a Senate majority will be an uphill battle for the GOP and the party of Lincoln has little room for error in constructing this majority.
The difficulty Republicans face at winning a Senate majority can best be illustrated in a race-by-race examination of the seats Democrats must defend in 2014. When examining potential Republican gains in the Senate, I divide possible pick ups into five categories: “Likely GOP Flips” (SD, WV), “Incumbents in Serious Trouble” (AR, LA, AK), “Democrats’ Red State Firewall” (NC, MT), “Open Seat Blue States” (MI, IA), “Potentially Competitive Blue States” (NH, MN, CO). (Although the New Jersey seat is open, that state appears unlikely to flip to the Republican Party. For the purposes of this piece, I also assume that Democrats do not gain a single seat currently held by Republicans.)
Likely GOP Flips: The retirements of Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) place these seats in serious peril for the Democratic Party. As Democrats have not yet recruited a strong candidate for either of these red state races (indeed former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin announced last week that she won’t run for the seat). have strong candidates running in both states in former Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Representative Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV).
Republicans could, as in the past, blow these fairly easy pick up opportunities by nominating too conservative candidates in primaries. For example, in the West Virginia race Shelly Moore Capito, who is pro-choice on abortion rights and holds a fairly moderate DW-Nominate score of 0.256, could be vulnerable should a credible challenge from a Tea Party candidate emerge. However, Democrats would still need a credible candidate in order to take advantage of such a situation (such as West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant).
The South Dakota race could get more interesting if either Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) or Democratic US Attorney (and son of the Senator) Brendan Johnson decides to jump in the race.
For the time being, however, let us assume that Republicans win both of these seats.
Incumbents in Serious Trouble: Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska all voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 by double digits. These states are all home to vulnerable Democratic incumbents; in my opinion, the vulnerability of these seats is in the order they are listed above. (Also, interestingly, the fathers of all three of these Senators— David Pryor , Moon Landrieu , and Nick Begich —were accomplished politicians in their own right.)
Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) faces a double threat: a state that is moving away from his party and a potential opponent with an impressive resume in Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). While the strong brand name surrounding the Pryor name may allow the Senator to win reelection—particularly if a strong candidate such as Tom Cotton declines to run—Pryor faces an uphill battle to win reelection.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) also hails from a conservative southern state and has a strong opponent in Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). In three elections to the Senate, Landrieu has never won with more than 52 percent of the vote. I consider Landrieu to be slightly more likely to win reelection than Pryor due to the fact that Louisiana has a larger African-American population than Arkansas and has a larger core of strong Democrats than the Natural State.
New Orleans (whose mayor is Sen. Landrieu’s brother Mitch Landrieu) is also a Democratic stronghold; no comparable Democratic stronghold exists in Arkansas. Finally, of note is the fact that the November election in Louisiana is actually a jungle primary; if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote then the top two candidates (of any party) advance to a December election. As a result, if multiple Republicans decide to run, it is possible that this race may not be decided until December 2014.
Finally the likely opponent of Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) is Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R-AK) who also boasts impressive credentials. I rate this state as least likely to flip of these three mostly due to the possibility of a Tea Party challenge that could derail Treadwell’s candidacy, such as from 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller. It is also important to note that Alaska has the third highest percentage of union members of any state and the state does not have a right-to-work law. While Alaska itself is quite rural, about two-fifths of its 731,000 people live in the city of Anchorage (population 291,000). (Mark Begich was mayor of Anchorage before being elected to the Senate in 2008). While Senator Begich is certainly in danger of losing reelection, he has a fighting chance to retain this seat.
For the time being, however, let us also assume that Republicans gain these three seats as well. This would put the Senate at 50-50.
Democrats’ Red State Firewall: Although both Montana and North Carolina went for Mitt Romney in 2012, winning either of these states presents a considerable challenge for the GOP.
While Mitt Romney won Montana by 14 points in 2012, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) also won reelection to a second term. Democrats commonly win state-level elections in Montana; for example Democrat Steve Bullock was elected Governor of Montana in 2012 and Democrat Denise Juneau was reelected as the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012. In other words, the vote for Republican presidential candidates in Montana exaggerates the Republican lean of the state in other races.
To fill the Senate being vacated by Senator Max Baucus, Democrats also have a strong potential candidate in former Governor Brian Schweitzer. Even if Schweitzer does not run, the aforementioned Denise Juneau would be a credible candidate. In contrast, the Republican bench in Montana is surprisingly weak: speculation has surrounded former Rep. (and two-time Senate loser) Denny Rehberg (R-MT), former Governor and lobbyist Marc Racicot (R-MT), and Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT) (who wants to avoid becoming the next Rick Berg).
For Republicans, winning the Montana Senate seat is easier said than done and requires several lucky breaks for the party. (Such as having Schweitzer pass on the race and convincing Racicot to run.)
The same is true of North Carolina. Ancestrally Democratic at the state level, President Obama won the Tar Heel State in 2008 and only lost by 2 percent in 2012. While NC Republicans are at a high point in control of state government since Reconstruction, there is no guarantee a strong GOP challenger to Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) will emerge.
Speculation on who will run has centered on House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-NC), Senate President Phil Berger (R-NC), and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC). While legislative leaders Tillis and Berger seem like strong candidates on paper, the North Carolina legislature suffers from low favorability ratings and has become a punch line for late-night comedians due to some of the proposals put forward by conservative legislators. While another candidate like Rep. Renee Ellmers would not have this state-level baggage, defeating a decently popular incumbent like Senator Hagan is always difficult.
Overall, Senator Hagan has done well in fundraising and has a considerable base of support in the Research Triangle and other North Carolina cities; the GOP lean of North Carolina is slight enough that the senator has to be considered at least a narrow favorite for reelection at this point.
Open Seat Blue States: While the retirements of longtime Democratic Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), these two Senate seats initially looked potentially competitive. However, Republicans haven’t recruited a strong candidate in either state yet; in Iowa a number of high profile candidates have said no to the race. Michigan Republicans hope to recruit Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI); if Rogers does not make the race MI Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is likely to run.
Regardless of who runs on the Republican side, Democrats have strong candidates in both states: Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI). The Democratic lean of both states, along with the lack of a strong Republican candidate in either state makes both of these races long shots (at least for the time being) for the GOP.
Potentially Competitive Blue States: The states of Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Colorado went for President Obama by mid-single digits in 2012 and all feature first term Democratic Senators seeking reelection. Polls from Public Policy Polling show all of these Democrats (Sens. Franken, Shaheen, and Udall) have decently strong favorability ratings and a strong Republican challenger has not yet emerged in any of these states. It will be an uphill battle for Republicans to win any of these states.
Overall, it will be difficult for Republicans to pick up Senate seats in states won by President Obama in 2012. Furthermore, the states of Montana and North Carolina will be more difficult for Republicans to win than initially appears to be the case when looking at the vote of these two states for president in 2012.
Therefore, even if Republicans sweep the other five races in states won by Mitt Romney—South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska—(which isn’t a guarantee) then the GOP will only achieve a tie in the Senate (which would be broken by Vice President Joe Biden). This also assumes that Democrats do not pick up any seats from the GOP (Georgia and Kentucky are outside opportunities for the party).
So while the Republican Party certainly might win control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections, winning such a majority will not be easy. Come Election Day 2014, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) might feel a lot like Sisyphus as the party once again falls just short at winning the Senate majority despite conventional wisdom in the months before the election.