SPECIAL REPORT—As we enter the summer months before the fall mid-term elections, all political eyes in the United States and around the world are on the U.S. Senate. The GOP needs to pick up six seats in November’s elections to take outright control of the U.S. Senate in 2015. Here’s why the GOP will do it.

The political make-up of the U.S. Senate in the final two years of President Barack Obama’s last term will determine if the president has some support on Capitol Hill to accomplish some “legacy” initiatives or, conversely, has no support and is ostensibly a lame duck until a new president is inaugurated in 2017.

The stakes are high and six months out from the elections it’s not looking good for President Obama. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be the minority leader next January.

2014 Political Landscape

Three factors are pointing in the direction of a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate beginning in January of 2015. First, tradition is stacked against President Obama and the Democratic Party. In the past century, only President Clinton has gained congressional seats in a second midterm election, and he was rather popular at the time of the mid-term elections.

Secondly, President Obama’s poll numbers are not strong. His job approval ratings overall — and especially in the senate battleground states — are very weak. The current Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of national polls has President Obama with a 44 percent job approval and a 52 percent job disapproval rating. The same RCP average of Americans on the question of the country going in the right direction or wrong direction shows an alarming 28 percent right track and 63 percent wrong track.

Four of the competitive races where Democrats are defending a senate seat are in reliably Republican majority states.

Moreover, four of the competitive races where Democrats are defending a senate seat are in reliably Republican majority states. In fact, the 2012 Republican candidate for president, Governor Mitt Romney, handily beat President Obama in the senate battleground states of North Carolina by 2 points, Alaska by 14 points, Arkansas by 24 points, and Louisiana by 17 points.

Furthermore, the president’s one major presidential triumph, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare” is still very unpopular among the American people despite a recent six week charm offensive to turn public opinion in favor of Obamacare.

In April, the president and the entire Democratic Party embarked on an intense White House celebration of Obamacare. They declared victory as 8 million people had signed up for Obamacare by the end of March.

The pro-Obamacare initiative fizzled as real numbers behind the 8 million became public. For instance:

  • Far less than 8 million are actually people who didn’t have healthcare before Obamacare,
  • Congressional testimony states that only 67 percent or 5.4 million are actually plan-paying clients,
  • Many of the 8 million enrolled only because they lost their healthcare because of Obamacare,
  • Only 25 percent, not the required 38 percent, of enrolled are in the “young and healthy” classification, so the economics behind Obamacare is now on a precarious ledge,
  • Americans fear that a federal bailout of insurance companies or higher deductibles and premiums on their personal plans are now inevitable,
  • Americans are now being told that they will not be able to use their own doctor or hospital for healthcare.

Moreover, the massive corporate mandate is expected to commence in 2015. And if the 2014 individual mandate rollout is any indication, the corporate mandate will be much larger, more involved and potentially a bigger disaster.

In The Spotlight

Despite April’s White House charm offensive on Obamacare, the latest RCP Average on the Affordable Care Act is 41 percent in favor of Obamacare and 51 percent in opposition.

Lastly, Democrats have been in functional charge of the U.S. federal government now for eight years dating back to 2006 when Democrats swept Republicans out of office in both the Senate and House. With President Obama’s election in 2008, the Democratic Party management of the U.S. economy was complete.

While Democrat incumbents and candidates in 2014 will have to defend an unpopular ACA, they will also have to defend eight years of other Democrat policies that, according to all political surveys, do not sit well with the American people. This includes Benghazi, the IRS investigations, the NSA policies, near $18 trillion debt, near $4 per gallon gasoline, an anemic economic growth rate, and, while the unemployment rate has steadily gone down, there is still a slow job recovery with over 92 million Americans still out of work and more than 50 million Americans now on food stamps.

There is no question: this is a heavy burden to defend for Democrats seeking a senate seat in 2014 in battleground states. Of course, Democrats will have answers for all of these, but it will be a withering assault by a well-financed and energized Republican Party.

Races To Watch

Republicans: 2 seats

As of this writing, no Senate seat currently held by a Republican is in any danger of being lost to a Democrat in 2014. Only two Republican seats can be described as having a competitive race, but most believe on election night those seats will stay in Republican hands.

Kentucky

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is being challenged by Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. As McConnell is the Republican leader in the Senate, Ms. Grimes has received national attention, national resources, and national money. This race is currently close, and could still be close in November. But it is hard to see how Grimes can overcome a significant Republican advantage in registered voters and President Obama’s poor job approval numbers in Kentucky.

Conservative U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) handily won his seat in the Senate in 2010 with an impressive 56 percent of the vote. In 2012, Kentucky gave Governor Mitt Romney a stunning 23 point victory over President Obama. This is a solidly red state, and if Grimes were to win, it would be headline news the next day.

Georgia

The other Republican race to watch will be for the seat to replace U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) in the senate from Georgia. Another reliably Republican state, the GOP nominee, presumably former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, will be running against the daughter of a very popular retired Democrat U.S. Senator, Sam Nunn.

Ms. Michelle Nunn is raising money, putting together an organization and a serious candidate, but, again, the sizable GOP voter registration and dissatisfaction with President Obama will be a tall order to rise above to take this seat back into the Democratic column. Georgia handed Romney an 8 point victory in 2012, and even before he has the nomination locked down, Perdue has a RCP average lead of 3 points over Nunn.

Democrats: 8 seats

It’s a different story for Democrats. There are eight senate seats currently represented by Democrats who have substantial, and in some cases, uphill battles to retain the seat in Democratic hands.

Arkansas

U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), son of popular retired Democratic U.S. Senator David Pryor (D-AR), is defending his seat against Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). For the past two years, this seat has been considered the number one targeted race in the country. The current RCP average of polls in the race shows incumbent Pryor with a 5 point lead. While a lead is a lead, it’s a rule of thumb that safe incumbents should have significantly larger leads entering the summer months of a campaign.

Pryor’s former Democratic colleague, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), lost her seat in the Senate by 21 points in 2010 soon after her vote for Obamacare. Pryor voted for passage of the ACA too. Moreover, Arkansas went for Romney by an eyebrow raising 24 points in 2012. If Pryor holds onto his seat on election night, it will be one of the most remarkable stories of 2014.

Alaska

While Alaska has yet to hold its primaries, U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) can’t seem to rise above the low 40s in any of the statewide polls. Begich is the son of former U.S. Rep. Nick Begich (D-AK) who perished in a plane crash in 1972 while representing Alaska in the House. After six years as a senator, Begich should be in a better position to retain his seat. In 2008, he only won his seat by 1 point which should have given the Begich Team early warning that the GOP would target his seat six years later.

A late supporter of Obamacare, Republicans can claim that Begich provided the 60th vote and ultimate victory to President Obama on the ACA. The Republican frontrunner to run against Begich is former Attorney General of Alaska Dan Sullivan who is also a former U.S. Marine Corps officer. Even before the Republican nominee is officially chosen, the RCP average of polls has this race at dead even 42.3 percent to 42.3 percent.

North Carolina

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) will certainly mount an extraordinary reelection campaign, but without President Obama at the top of the ticket to drive a Democratic Party ‘get out the vote’ effort, it is hard to see how she can pull enough Democratic votes out of North Carolina to outdistance the Republican nominee, State House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Tillis is a strong consensus candidate who brought together the establishment GOP, and the conservative and Tea Party factions in North Carolina to win his primary. If he is able to put that unique coalition into a concrete “get out the vote” effort prior to the election, then Senator Hagan will have a difficult time retaining her seat in the Senate.

West Virginia

U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is an institution in West Virginia and it has always been very difficult for a Republican to defeat him in his state. But he is retiring this year and West Virginia is solidly trending to the GOP.

Popular Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) has a double digit lead over Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. West Virginia is coal country and the president’s assault on the coal industry has been widely felt in West Virginia. This seat looks like a flip from D to R in the fall.

Montana

Montana is a potential pick-up for Republicans too in 2014 for many of the same reasons as West Virginia. Like Senator Rockefeller in West Virginia, U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) is an institution in Montana, and as a result, always a difficult race for the GOP to defeat. But earlier this year, President Obama chose Senator Baucus to be his Ambassador to China.

The governor of Montana appointed little known Lieutenant Governor John Walsh to replace Baucus in the Senate. The likely Republican nominee is U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT). Without Baucus on the ticket, it is hard to see how Democrats can keep this Montana seat. The current RCP average has Daines with a 13 point lead on Walsh.

South Dakota

Much like California, which goes heavily to Democrats, South Dakota in 2014 will go heavily to a Republican. With the retirement of U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), it is expected that popular Republican and former governor Mike Rounds will walk into the U.S. Senate and flip this seat from D to R.

Rounds will be running against Mr. Rick Weiland, a former staff member of retired Senate Majority Leader U.S. Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD). Consequently, Weiland will have resources and the financial ability to run a sound race. But Rounds’ organization and favorable poll number from his time as governor in a solidly red state point to a victory by Rounds and a seat going from D to R.

Louisiana

Louisiana will be THE RACE TO WATCH in 2014. Louisiana has an “Open Primary” system: several candidates run and the two top vote getters on election night, November 4, face one another in a run-off (presuming no one gets 50 percent of the vote on November 4) one month later on December 6. At this writing, the expected winners on the open primary night will be incumbent U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

If Republicans pick up five seats on election night, then every political operative in the U.S. will descend on Louisiana the next day because this one seat could determine the majority in the U.S. Senate.

The current RCP average has Cassidy in the lead over incumbent Landrieu by 2 points. An incumbent being behind a challenger at this stage of a race is never good. Add to that, Romney had a landslide victory over Obama in the state, and Louisiana is currently run by a very popular Republican governor Bobby Jindal.

Nevetheless, it is hard to bet against a Landrieu in Louisiana. Senator Landrieu’s father is former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu and her brother is the current mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. Consequently, this race should be Senator Landrieu’s to lose; but it will be difficult for her as this state trends Republican.

Obamacare is a real problem for Senator Landrieu in Louisiana for several reasons. Her state has always been vehemently opposed to Obamacare, and during the entire debate on Obamacare in 2010, Senator Landrieu was publicly and seriously opposed to the ACA.

However, in the run-up to the ACA vote in the senate, the bill was rewritten to reflect a $300 million payment to Medicaid for Louisiana. Within hours, Senator Landrieu changed her vote from against to for the ACA. For the past three years, Senator Landrieu has had to defend her critical flip/flop on the ACA which is now commonly referred to in Louisiana as the second “Louisiana Purchase.” Cassidy will make this controversial vote and issue a major component in his campaign against Senator Landrieu.

Colorado

Colorado is another state where Obamacare is unpopular and the current U.S. Senator, Tom Udall (D-CO), is presently embroiled in a small, but very public scandal involving Obamacare. He is running against a popular two term congressman, Cory Gardner (R-CO).

The Democrats also will have to defend other seats they once considered obvious victories.

It appears that the Colorado Insurance Administration, under Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO), had released numbers that stated 250,000 Coloradans had received termination letters from their health insurers as a result of Obamacare. Senator Udall’s staff was not in agreement with those numbers and began a sustained intimidation — some say bullying — of state employees to change the numbers. This bullying is now an investigation and a component of Udall’s troubles in his reelection.

The RCP average has Udall up in his reelection against Gardner by 2 points. This now toss-up race is a real shock to the Democratic Party that once thought Udall was a solid victory in November.

Other Democratic Senate Seats to Watch

The Democratic National Committee will have to seriously defend the eight seats discussed above to stave off a GOP route in November. But Democrats also will have to defend four other seats they once considered obvious victories, but now are on a watch list. In turn, Democrats may have to steer vital resources from critical states to states where they never planned to spend important campaign dollars.

In recent weeks, reliably blue states like Oregon, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Virginia have gone from relatively safe Democratic seats to seats that the DNC now may have to conceivably defend.

In Oregon, Dr. Monica Wehby has emerged as the Republican frontrunner to oppose U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). One recent survey has Wehby in the lead — although most believe that Merkley has a good lead. Oregon is a reliably Democratic state and if Merkley were to lose on election night, it would most likely be the culmination of a dreadful night for Democrats nationwide. This seat should remain in Democratic hands, but Wehby is a strong and exciting candidate and she will give Merkley a good race.

In New Hampshire, former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has moved north to New Hampshire to take on U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Shaheen currently has only a 3 point lead on Brown in a state where Obamacare is very unpopular. Democrats have been trying to paint Brown as a carpetbagger, but it’s clear that, although he was a senator from Massachusetts, Brown has substantial and long roots in New Hampshire.

Brown’s problem will be pulling the many conservative factions together in New Hampshire to defeat Shaheen. He is viewed as a moderate. And if conservatives do not turn out for Brown in the general election, it will be hard to see how he will be able to defeat Shaheen in a solidly blue Democratic state in the fall. However, if conservatives do rally to Brown in the fall, then Shaheen, who voted for the unpopular Obamacare, could be on the danger list at the DNC.

In Virginia, the GOP got its dream candidate, former Republican National Committee chairman, Ed Gillespie, who has deep roots in Virginia and will be able to match U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) dollar for dollar in his reelection bid. This should have been an easy stroll to reelection for Warner, but with the entrance of Gillespie, Warner will have to earn his way back into the Senate. The current RCP average has Warner up comfortably by double digits against Gillespie, but national Democrats will need to keep an eye on this seat for any sudden changes.

In November 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli by a margin of 48 percent to 46 percent to become the governor of Virginia. How does this relate to the Warner race? McAuliffe had a substantial double digit lead on Cuccinelli throughout the entire campaign until the last few weeks when the gap closed rather suddenly.

Cuccinelli almost solely devoted the last two weeks to McAuliffe’s support of Obamacare. Warner voted for Obamacare which only won by one vote in the senate. He will have to defend his vote on the ACA throughout the election; not just in the final few weeks.

Certainly, much can happen over the next six months. As a result, at the most this article is an exercise is informed speculation. Nonetheless, the Senate is clearly within reach for the GOP in 2014.

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Jeffrey Taylor
About The Author Jeffrey Taylor
Jeffrey L. Taylor is managing partner of the Washington, DC-based government relations firm USGRI.com. He served on Capitol Hill in several capacities and in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter at @USGRI_Lobbyist.




www.usgri.com


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