GOP Sees a Pretty Picture in 2014

The outlook is rosy for Republicans this election year, but challenges remain.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to supporters at a campaign rally May 19, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Republicans may be poised to take back control of the Senate this election season, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others may not be in for a cakewalk.

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It’s a very pretty picture Republicans are facing as they look at the November elections. Democratic retirements have put a slew of states in play, and some of Capitol Hill’s most vulnerable-on-paper Democrats – the ones who serve in red states at a time when the president is suffering from low approval ratings there – happen to be up for re-election this year. But on closer inspection, the scene looks more like an impressionist’s rendering, picture-perfect from a distance but much messier and complicated when examined up close. 

The long view gives the GOP its best chance in years of taking back control of the Senate, a task that would require a pickup of six seats. Democrats must defend 21 seats, while Republicans have just 15 up before the voters. Of that 15, a dozen are considered solid keepers for the GOP, with another (the Mississippi seat held by veteran Sen. Thad Cochran) considered a likely keeper – and the only reason that seat is remotely in play is because of a tea party challenge to Cochran that could muddle a general election scenario. 

And the Democrats? The respected, nonpartisan Cook Political Report counts fewer than half of the 21 seats as “solid” or “likely” Democratic, with one race (the open seat in South Dakota) considered a likely pickup for Republicans and two more (the open seats in West Virginia and Montana) leaning Republican. Just two seats (New Hampshire and Iowa) are slightly favored for Democrats, and six of the party’s seats are considered pure tossups. Only two of the GOP-held seats are in the “tossup” category. 

[READ: The Senate 7 – Democrats Defend Against GOP Assault]

Further, Republicans have been more pragmatic this year, nominating more establishment GOPers for the Senate. With the exception of Texas, where tea party-backed contenders won primaries last week for a congressional seat and the lieutenant governor’s job, the tea party movement has taken a beating in the primaries, failing in Georgia and Kentucky – the only two states where Democrats have a chance for a pickup – and in Colorado, where sitting Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is now in a tougher-than-expected race because of the nomination of establishment Republican Cory Gardner. 

History also gives the GOP a boost this year. The president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. President Barack Obama has low approval ratings, especially in states with contested seats, and his signature law, the Affordable Care Act, continues to raise ire in key states. While it seems logical that battleground seats would end up with roughly equal wins for each party, that has not been the case for the last half-century, when one party has tended to sweep the contested races. 

According to an analysis by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, Senate results favored a single party at least 69 percent of the time from 1972 to 1980 and 89 percent of the time from 2006 to 2012. But because of the peculiarities of the individual races this year, that could change this fall, he says. “It’s easy to imagine that you could see these races split. Of the six or eight races that look competitive, we could end up with three or four going one way, and three or four going the other,” Abramowitz says. Key to the outcomes, Abramowitz and others say, is whether the campaigns and appeals of individual candidates end up trumping another trend: the nationalization of Senate races. 

In Louisiana and Arkansas, for example, incumbent Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor face a daunting challenge: convincing voters to keep a Democratic majority when many of their constituents would like nothing better than to stop Obama’s agenda. “I don’t think that Obama helps Landrieu, and I certainly don’t think the ACA helps her in any way,” says Louisiana State University professor Bob Mann, a former Democratic Hill staffer. “I also don’t think those two things hurt her as much as people thought they would.” Landrieu has talked about expanding Medicaid – something Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has refused to do. And she has emphasized her power as the new chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “I’ve always written her off, and this is probably the toughest race she’s ever going to have,” Mann says. “But the one thing she keeps on doing is winning elections.” 

[ALSO: The Last Best Chance for the Tea Party Is Against Thad Cochran]

Pryor, too, is seeking to focus voters’ attention on himself as an individual and not as an Obama team player. He has emphasized his religious convictions, calling the Bible his “North Star” in an ad. He’s still in a tough race, and polls show him barely ahead of his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. 

Deep-red Alaska also seems like an easy takeaway for the GOP. But the state’s incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, says it’s about the man in Alaska, not the one in the White House. Obama “lost Alaska by 22 points when I won the race, and Sarah Palin was on the ballot” in 2008, Begich says. “I think that’s going to happen again. Alaskans are like that. They look at the person. It’s a very Alaska-oriented campaign.” 

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And some of the voters in key states just aren’t what they used to be – literally. In North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is in a tight race for re-election, the demographics have changed substantially, with less-conservative out-of-staters moving in to work around the Research Triangle near Raleigh. Even Georgia, long written off by Democrats as defiantly Republican, is headed toward purple status in the next two to six years, says independent Georgia political analyst John Davis. The Peach State’s population has grown by several million in the last 20 years, and two-thirds of the new residents are not from the South, he notes. “It’s a perfectly balanced playing field,” Davis says. While the structural factors favor Republicans (who will choose either David Perdue or Jack Kingston in a runoff), Democrats could prevail if they mount the sort of turnout operation that won Obama a second term, he says. “I can’t think of an advantage that cannot be neutralized by the other side,” Davis concludes. 

Women, who helped Democrats defy expectations and pick up two Senate seats in the last cycle, could also help the majority party hang on to its status. Michelle Nunn, daughter of popular former Sen. Sam Nunn, is the Democrats’ nominee in Georgia, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, taking on Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, has led slightly in a couple of polls. Grimes has emphasized both, women’s issues and her differences with Obama on local matters such as coal. 

Still, Democrats have a hard task ahead of them, notes Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy. Where Democrats lead in polls, they’re still well within the margin of error, she explains – not exactly where an incumbent wants to be less than six months before Election Day. Until then, to stay in Washington, the at-risk Democrats will cast themselves as being independent from Washington’s ways.