Democrats Bullish About 2014 — Here’s Their Case

Photograph by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, arrives to hear Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, deliver his semiannual monetary policy report to the Senate Banking Committee on July 17, 2012.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in Republican-leaning South Dakota has focused attention on the overall challenges his party faces in the 2014 midterm.

As Democrats gear up to defend their Senate majority, substantially more of their seats appear  in play than those held by Republicans — at this admittedly early stage.

Most speculation concerns not whether the Democrats will see their numbers diminished in the Senate, but rather if Republicans can make the net gain of six seats needed to seize control of the chamber.

Matt Canter will have none of that. Of course, Canter gets paid to be bullish about Democratic prospects — he’s deputy executive director of the party’s Senate campaign committee. Still, as he walks through the math and the map, he makes a persuasive case.

Among next year’s 35 Senate elections, Canter sees 10 likely competitive contests — eight for seats Democrats are defending, two for Republican-held seats. And that gives him this bottom line: if Democrats can snag just one of the Republican seats, the GOP will need a virtual clean sweep of the other races to lay claim to the Senate. And that is no easy task.

The Republicans, he told us, “have no margin for error” in their bid for a Senate majority. Indeed, he calls achieving that goal “alot more difficult for Republicans than it was two years ago,” when, in early looks at the 2012 vote, they seemed certain to make gains and in good position to take over the Senate. Instead, Democrats added two seats to their caucus.

Much of the optimism among Republicans as they eye 2014 stems from the seven Democratic Senate seats on the ballot in states that Mitt Romney carried in last year’s presidential race — in most cases, handily. Still, as Canter notes, Republicans need to win almost all of these races — even if they hold the two seats which he thinks Democrats can grab — to get their Senate majority. And that means defeating some incumbents who have more than proved their mettle.

These include Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Max Baucus in Montana. Landrieu and Pryor come from deeply entrenched political families in their states, giving them firmly established networks of supporters to draw upon. Baucus, meanwhile, must have some clue about wooing voters — he’s won six previous Senate campaigns. Upending any of this trio almost assuredly will require a strong Republican candidate who enjoys unified backing — i.e., an avoidance of the type of problems that plagued the party in several 2010 and 2012 Senate campaigns.

What really gets Canter excited, as he surveys the 2014 political landscape, is discussing the two Republican-held seats his committee has targeted: in Georgia and Kentucky.

Georgia came into play for Democrats when incumbent Sen Saxby Chambliss decided earlier this year not to seek another term. Republicans face the possibility of a fractious primary from which a nominee lacking appeal to moderate voters could emerge. And Canter, without tipping his hand, said Democrats soon will have a “strong candidate” surfacing.

He gets even more animated talking about his party’s aim to send Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, into forced retirement in Kentucky. Ashley Judd may have decided to pass on seeking the Democratic nomination, but Canter said the party has a “deep bench” of other contenders who, while lacking the actress’s national cache, can run strong in their home state.

“I don’t think people in Washington really understand the depth of McConnell’s vulnerability in Kentucky,” Canter said. To a swath of voters, he said, the lawmaker stands “as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Washington.”

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