Senate Republicans have to be depressed after a dismal 2012 election showing. The party lost winnable seat after winnable seat in red or purple territory. The only bright spots for the GOP were wins in NV and NB but even those wins could not overcome the sting of losing every other swing state and two overall seats.
Many of these losses were avoidable. In both Indiana and Missouri, the GOP had less than stellar candidates but were facing weak challengers themselves. In MO, Todd Akin had the upper hand until he made his infamous comments about rape. Months later in Indiana, GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock awkwardly phrased why he supports life even in the case of rape. Mourdock’s gaffe is particularly indefensible because the GOP flew in a debate coach to prep him on the question of rape.
GOP Senate candidates across the nation in 2012, originally heralded as top recruits fell flat in the end. Former WI Governor Tommy Thompson, former VA Governor and Senator George Allen, Montana Representative Denny Rehburg, Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel and Florida Congressman Connie Mack all lost their races by at least three points. Montana and Virginia were particularly painful for the GOP as they felt they had good shots in each state on election day.
But disappointment on November 6, 2012 could turn into joy on November 4th, 2014 if the GOP plays its card right. On the surface the Senate math for 2014 does not favor the GOP as much as 2012 did. This cycle (started November 7, 2012) the GOP is defending 13 seats and the Democrats 20. Last cycle Democrats were defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 11. But whereas the GOP had several vulnerable seats to defend at the start of the cycle (NV and MA) and later on (ME and IN) the GOP does not appear to have ANY vulnerable seats at the start of this election.
The 13 seats the GOP will be defending will almost all solely be in safe GOP territory (minus ME). The GOP should easily be able to hold onto seats in AL, ID KY, KS, MS, NB, OK TN and WY. Seats in SC, GA and TX might be a bit trickier but assuming neither Jon Cornyn (TX), Saxby Chambliss (GA) or Lindsey Grahman (SC) retires the GOP should carry all three. The trickiest state for the GOP may again be Maine. Republicans were shellshocked last year when Olympia Snowe announced her retirement from the seat and the GOP could not hold it. In 2014, if Susan Collins decides to retire the GOP likely would lose their second to last Northeastern Senate seat (other seat being in New Hampshire).
Democrats on the other hand will be defending a number of vulnerable seats from 08. These seats include but are not limited to AR, WV, LA, MN, AK, NC, and NH. In AK and NC Democratic freshmen will be fighting to hold onto their seats in traditionally GOP territory. In each state the GOP has a deep bench to recruit from. In New Hampshire and Minnesota Democratic freshman will also be defending their seats in blue leaning states. In Arkansas, Louisiana, and West Virginia long-time Democrats will attempting to hold their seats in increasingly partisan territory.
A number of other seats could come onto the radar in the election. In Michigan, if Carl Levin retires the GOP could have a real shot at the seat. Also, in North Dakota and Montana if the Democratic Senator retires the GOP could credibly challenge for those seats. In each competitive and potentially competitive state the GOP will face a different dynamic. In AR and LA the GOP will have the benefit of a conservative electorate but the challenge of overcoming well entrenched conservative Democratic incumbents. In AL and NC the GOP will be running up against freshmen incumbents but a more moderate state electorate. In states such as NH and MN the GOP will have to win over blue leaning suburbs and run up the margins in rural areas of each state. Lastly, in potentially competitive states the GOP could face open seats or a weak incumbent. An open North Dakota Senate seat would look extremely attractive to the GOP.
Beyond the individual races significant hurdles remain to the GOP winning the Senate in 2014. Many races may not be as competitive as they appear on paper. Second, the GOP had a lackluster recruitment showing in 2012 despite high praise early on. Candidate recruitment for the GOP must be a priority even if that means wading into primaries. Ohip Senator Tom Portman’s refusal to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee has left only subpar candidates to fill the position. If the GOP had gotten involved in primaries in MO and IN the Senate could be 47-53 instead of 45-55 today. Lastly, the GOP must find a message that candidates across the country and in individual states can articulate to soft partisans and swing voters. Offering red meat may make Republicans in AL vote to reelect their incumbent but it will not win races for challengers in NC or NH.