On paper, the 2014 Senate cycle could hardly be going better for Republicans.
The Democrats are on defense, holding 21 of the 35 seats up for grabs next year. Several stalwart Democrats have announced their retirement, including Montana Senator Max Baucus, who announced Tuesday he would follow Iowa’s Tom Harkin and Michigan’s Carl Levin in not seeking re-election. Those veterans have won a combined 17 terms, and their departures leave tested political and fundraising machines on the table and give the GOP an opening in otherwise untouchable races. The implementation of Obamacare could complicate many others. History is on the Republican side; no sitting president’s party has gained Senate seats in the midterm of a second term. In recent cycles, the loss has averaged more than six seats — enough to give Republicans control.
But for all the early bright spots, Republicans had a similar opportunity to retake the Senate two years ago. Needing just four seats to regain control, and defending only 10 seats compared to the Democrats’ 23, Republicans managed to drop two seats, thanks to the impact of Barack Obama on the national ticket and poor candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. The legacy of that disaster is proving to be hard for the National Republican Senatorial Committee to shake, even as the party’s electoral prospects improve.
In the first quarter of 2013, the NRSC’s fundraising was doubled by its Democratic counterpart in the first quarter of the year, $6.8 million to $13.7 million. “Donors want to see their money is being spent effectively now,” says one DC-based GOP operative. In a host of races that could be prime pickup opportunities for the party, potential GOP candidates are also sitting on the sidelines, waiting to test the political winds. “I’d wait if I were them too,” said one veteran Republican operative in a state with an open Senate seat. “We blew an easy cycle last time, so why stick your neck out for the Senate if you could run for governor or something else.”
The NRSC has largely cleaned shop since 2012, and communications director Brad Dayspring predicts the Democratic retirements will boost fundraising. “Opportunity is always attractive to donors,” he says. “Like it or not, retirements are a sign of weakness for Democrats and strength for us.”
But the six retirements may not prove catastrophic for the Democrats, even if they are making already antsy operatives downright nervous. Democrats have so far done a better job of candidate recruitment, which could help avoid damaging primaries. In some states, like Michigan and Iowa, no Republicans have jumped into the race yet. And in Montana, the popular former two-time Gov. Brian Schweitzer is considering running — arguably a stronger candidate that Baucus.
Dayspring blamed the focus on recruitment on the “second-by-second nature” of Washington reporting. “I can assure you that we will have candidates in all of these states,” he says, adding that historically many winning candidates have declared in the year of the election, rather than almost 18 months out.
Much is on the line for Republicans in 2014, which is likely the best and final opportunity to regain control of the Senate until at least 2018. In 2016, Democrats will have just 10 seats up for reelection while Republicans will have 24.