Midterm surprises still in store?

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The worst thing that can happen to a campaign is something unpredictable.

Candidates can drop a gaffe that alienates 47 percent of the nation. A perfect candidate can jump in a race late and completely upend it. Veteran lawmakers can decide suddenly to retire, leaving the party with few options to replace him or her.

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The prospect of an unforeseen event rattling a race keeps strategists awake at night, planning for every possible contingency. But those prospects are what make so many campaigns nail-biters till the very end.

We’re less than nine months from Election Day 2014, and here are five unanswered questions we’re wondering about, and we know many consultants and strategists are too: 

Will former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) jump in the New Hampshire Senate race?

Without Brown, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) is favored to keep her seat as she faces four Republicans, none of whom have yet given Democrats cause for concern. In polls she’s consistently led every candidate by double digits, and even topped a generic Republican by 10 points in a November survey.

But Brown would shake her from that safe perch if he decided to run. Three of four polls on the race out in January showed him holding her to single digits, and one showed him tying it. He’s made no secret of the fact he’s interested, and has been dropping into GOP fundraisers and stumping for candidates across the state, sparking renewed speculation over his plans every time he headlines a luncheon — or takes a shirtless dip into a freezing lake.

Democrats privately admit he’s a concern, due to his starpower and impressive fundraising abilities. To wit, they’ve already dropped hundreds of thousands into the state in attack ads hitting Brown, in hopes of tanking his popularity early on to dissuade him out of the race.

But with a June filing date, Brown could keep the state guessing, and Shaheen’s team on tenterhooks, for months.

Who’s the next Todd Akin?

Two words — “legitimate rape” — from the Missouri Republican Senate candidate sunk his chances and burdened the campaigns of many other Republicans in 2012. Now, the party’s establishment is working hard to avoid another unforced, fatal error. 

But potential landmine candidates are everywhere. In Kansas, Milton Wolf, Sen. Pat Roberts’ primary challenger, has compared President Obama to Hitler and Mussolini.

In Mississippi, Chris McDaniels is challenging Sen. Thad Cochran (R ) in the primary. But the state senator has a history of controversial comments: He once wondered why Hollywood doesn’t cast Muslims as villains, said waterboarding is “a fairly humane form of torture” and has called the Democratic Party a party of “sex on demand.”

In Georgia, a trio of GOP Senate candidates, all members of the House, have Republicans sweating. Rep. Paul Broun previously called scientific theories like evolution “lies straight from the pit of hell” and has floated impeaching President Obama; Rep. Jack Kingston suggested low-income students should sweep floors in exchange for subsidized school lunches; and Rep. Phil Gingrey had no problem embracing Akin, with the OB-GYN saying his remarks that pregnancies don’t happen in cases of “legitimate rape” were “partially right.”

And just this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) primary challenger Matt Bevin suggested legalizing same-sex marriage could lead to legalizing parent-child marriages, opening himself up to criticism from Democrats.

Kansas and Mississippi are likely to stay in GOP hands, but Democrats have serious challengers in both Georgia and Kentucky, and minor missteps could quickly grow into major, campaign-ending mistakes. 

Could other candidates still shake up a race?

While Brown would expand the Senate map, other potential candidates could significantly upend a race, in both good and bad ways.

In Louisiana, disgraced ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) is toying with a run in an open, heavily GOP seat. He spent eight years in prison after being convicted of racketeering but was elected governor four times. There’s one other Democrat already in the race, but seven Republicans are vying for a shot at the safe seat.

Edwards isn’t expected to win it, or even really put the seat into play. But he could give Democrats in the state a bit of a headache — he’s known for his colorful campaign antics and quotes, and doesn’t shy from the limelight. Any comments along the same lines as his infamous 1983 statement that “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy” (before winning his race) could be damaging for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who’s locked in a tough race, if Republicans tried to use it against her.

And in Mississippi, in case McDaniel does make it through the primary — a real possibility, as Cochran is considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the nation — Democrats are pushing former Rep. Travis Childers to jump in the race before the March 1 filing deadline.

Democrats hope Childers, a centrist Blue Dog Democrat, could put the seat in play and potentially orchestrate an outcome similar to the one that flipped former Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) seat for Democrats. Then, Lugar failed to make it through a primary and the GOP nominee, Richard Mourdock, made ill-timed comments about rape and pregnancy that crippled his campaign in the final stretch. That helped now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) pull off the upset. 

Who’s next out the door?

The threat of moderate Democrats and Republicans retiring from Congress and opening up competitive seats remains real for both parties. 

GOP members that have headed for the exits have put their seats in play, with retirements from Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.). Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) was already a longshot for re-election, and his retirement likely hands Democrats that seat. Will any other centrists, frustrated with congressional gridlock and the sharp, rightward turn of their party, also call it quits? 

But some Democratic retirements have stung more. Exits from Blue Dog Reps. Jim Matheson (R-Utah) and Mike McIntyre (R-N.C.) give the GOP near-sure wins and make their already difficult climb to the majority even harder. 

But other centrist Democrats in solidly red seats are worth watching. Reps. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) are still considered top retirement risks, and Peterson has said he won’t make a decision until next month. If either decided not to run again, Democrats would be hard-pressed to protect their seats. 

Could open seat primaries go awry? 

Primary fights can ruin the parties’ best shot at flipping or retaining seats.

Republicans face that possibility in New York’s 21st district and Iowa’s 3rd. 

Though Democrats have picked a political unknown to run for the seat of retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D) after stronger candidates passed, Republicans have a primary battle on their hands between the establishment pick, former Bush White House staffer Elise Stefanik, and a two-time failed candidate for the seat, Matt Doheny.

Doheny has considerable baggage — but he’s also got deep pockets — and if he wins the primary, Republicans worry he could give Democrats a shot at retaining the seat.

Rep. Jon Runyan's (R-N.J.) retirement has put into play a competitive district for Democrats, and the reappearance of former GOP Senate candidate Steve Lonegan could seriously jeopardize Republicans' chances of keeping the seat. Lonegan made a national name for himself with his controversial comments on the campaign trail last year, questioning Sen. Cory Booker's (D) masculinity at one point. Democrats have Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard in the race, and while a number of other Republicans have expressed interest, so far Lonegan is their only announced candidate.

In California's 21st district, Democrats think they finally have a strong candidate to take down perennial target Rep. David Valadao (R) in Democrat Amanda Renteria. But another run from Democrat John Hernandez, who last cycle made it through the primary instead of the establishment pick and went on to lose the race in the general, threatens to snatch the race out of the party's grasp yet again.