The Magazine

The Battle of 2014

With the midterm elections less than a year away, the terrain looks surprisingly favorable for Republicans

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By JAY COST
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All in all, this suggests that Republicans are set to have a reasonably good year. The Democrats, even if they retain a majority, are extremely unlikely to walk away having lost zero net seats, as they did in 1998. The election is too far away for confident predictions, but a net pickup of six Senate seats by the Republicans appears doable.

What about the Senate contests as seen from the vantage point of particular states? Nominees have not yet been selected, which clouds the picture. Still, there are a few points to be made. First, Democratic incumbents are retiring in the heavily Republican states of Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. This is important, because contests for open seats tend to reflect the partisan dynamics of the state, and these states gave Mitt Romney between 55 percent and 62 percent of the vote, a clear advantage for Republicans. 

 

Beyond that, the races in Arkansas and Louisiana, two heavily GOP states where Democratic incumbents are running for reelection, have already assumed their likely shape. In Arkansas, the GOP has struck gold with its all-but-official candidate: Freshman House member and decorated Iraq war veteran Tom Cotton is running unopposed for the nomination. Cotton is about as close to ideal as Republican candidates come. He’s young, smart, distinguished, and has appropriated the usually Democratic language of “the people versus the powerful” to tie Senator Mark Pryor to the backroom deals brokered by the Democrats to pass Obamacare. In Louisiana, GOP congressman Bill Cassidy has drawn a challenger from the right, but seems likely to beat him in Louisiana’s unique “jungle primary” (all parties compete, and the top two finishers face off in the general election) and win the right to face incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu in the fall. 

In the remaining states, little can be said until the results of GOP primary battles are known. These primaries could be the most important factor in determining who takes control of the Senate in January 2015. Over the last two election cycles, the GOP has needlessly lost Senate elections in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota because its candidates were grossly inferior to those the Democrats nominated. In other words, over the last two cycles, the Republicans should have won control of the Senate, but failed because their candidates were terrible.

That problem could dog them again. For instance, Republicans have two decent would-be candidates in Alaska—Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and former attorney general Dan Sullivan—but Joe Miller is also running for the nomination. Miller upset Republican senator Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary, but ran such an inept general election campaign that the incumbent was able to win reelection as a write-in candidate. Similarly, Ken Buck, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Colorado in 2010, opened himself up to attacks in the culture war and lost to Democrat Michael Bennet. Buck is running again. 

If Republicans nominate candidates like Miller and Buck, they may once more snatch defeat from the jaws
of victory. In general, they need to recruit solid conservatives who are also appealing to voters. If Obama remains -unpopular next year, and the public is still dissatisfied with Obamacare, candidates who focus on those issues with pinpoint accuracy should win. But contenders who cannot successfully defend themselves on culture war issues or whose personal integrity is questionable will give Democrats an opening. 

On the other side of the Capitol, the House of Representatives looks reasonably secure for the Republicans, for the same reasons that a takeover of the Senate is possible. Modest economic growth and a weak president should shield Republicans from Democratic assaults and discourage top-notch Democratic prospects from challenging GOP incumbents. 

Moreover, the electoral landscape of the House favors the GOP. Mitt Romney actually carried a majority of House districts in 2012, even as he lost the nationwide popular vote by roughly 4 points. Democrats these days are wont to blame their plight on perfidious GOP gerrymandering, ignoring the 80 years after the Great Depression in which Democrats had the upper hand in drawing House districts. 

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