Democrats have been here before — confronting a numbers game that undercuts their bid to keep a Senate majority. They confounded such odds in 2012, but by necessity their sigh of relief was brief. The Democrats face a similar scenario in the 2014 midterms, and later today the story-line gets a little bleaker for the party.
South Dakotan Tim Johnson, a successful Democrat in a state that since 1940 has voted Republican in every presidential election save Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, is expected to announce that he won’t seek a fourth Senate term.
Even with Johnson – who remains hampered by the effects of a 2006 brain hemorrhage — on the ticket, the seat shaped up as a tough Democratic hold. Now that challenge is heightened, especially with former Gov. Mike Rounds having already announced he will seek the Republican Senate nomination.
So let’s count South Dakota as a likely Republican pickup in 2014, along with West Virginia, where Democrat Jay Rockefeller has decided not to seek re-election. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito gives Republicans a strong contender to replace Rockefeller in a state where President Barack Obama carried barely a third of the vote last November.
With those two gains, Republicans will need to net four more seats to win back the Senate they lost in the 2006 election. A daunting task, but definitely doable, given the electoral math.
Democrats have 19 other seats to defend next year — and as in South Dakota and West Virginia, five of them are in states that Republican Mitt Romney carried against Obama. In each of those — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina — the Democratic incumbents are wily politicians. But each will have their work cut out for them, and as of now none are heavy favorites.
An eighth clearly vulnerable Democratic seat is in Iowa, a race that opened up when party mainstay Tom Harkin decided not to seek a sixth term. As Bloomberg’s John McCormick recently detailed, the campaign’s initial skirmish will be closely watched for what it reveals about conflicts within the Republican Party. Depending on what happens among the state’s Republicans, the battle to replace Harkin may emege as one of the nation’s most fiercely fought contests.
Two other potential problem spots loom for Democrats — Michigan, where Democrat Carl Levin’s decision to retire means Republicans can legitimately contemplate capturing the open seat, and Minnesota, where Republicans are anxious to send Democrat Al Franken (a victor by barely 300 votes six years ago) back to his comedic roots.
All told, that gives Democrats 10 seats to worry about.
The comparable list for Republicans, among the 14 seats they are defending?
At best, as of now, one.
Barring unforseen political twists, Republicans seem assured of maintaining their seats in the party strongholds of Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska (an open seat), Oklahoma, South Carolina (where both senators will be on the ballot), Tennessee and Wyoming.
One day, the burgeoning Latino population could turn Texas into a swing state, ripe for competitive races. But that day remains still a way’s off as John Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, seeks re-election next year.
Democrats may also muse about taking out Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, especially if actress Ashley Judd decides to take him on. A Judd candidacy would enliven the midterm campaign, but it’s hard to see the venerable McConnell losing his starring role in a state Romney carried with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Susan Collins of Maine stands as the oddity among her Republican Senate colleagues — she’s the only one up for re-election next year in a state that Obama won last year. It’s also a state that charts its own course, electing independent (though Democrat-leaning) Angus King as its other senator in 2012. But Collins, after easily surviving the 2008 Democratic wave, isn’t likely to lose her bid for a fourth term.
Georgia, in the wake of Saxby Chambliss’ decision to step down at the end of his current term, stands as the sole seat Republicans may have to break a sweat to retain. And that prospect hinges on who the party tabs as its standard-bearer.
Those interested include four members of the state’s contingent of Republican House members, a group the Hill newspaper aptly described as “conservative, more conservative and most conservative.”
Paul Broun, the congressman to whom many would apply the “most conservative” label, already has announced his intention to seek the Chambliss seat. And that could give the Democrats their shot.
Broun has a rich history of making provocative comments, including widely quoted remarks in a speech late last year. A trained physician and member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, he said the theories of evolution and the “Big Bang” creation of Earth were among “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
To punctuate his point, he also estimated Earth’s age as “about 9,000 years old.”
Amid the dark clouds hovering over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a Broun nomination would be greeted by its staff as a ray of sunshine.