Senate, House Democrats face tough election fundamentals in 2014

Democrats could be in for a tough election cycle in 2014,  defending a number of red-state Senate seats and facing a tough path to take back control of the House.

The smoke is still clearing from the 2012 election landscape, but both parties are already looking to the future. 

Democrats will once again be defending many more Senate seats than the GOP, with 20 senators up compared to 13 for Republicans. Six of those Democrats hail from red states, while seven come from swing states. Republicans will need to pick up six seats to retake control of the upper chamber. 

On the House side, Republican gerrymanders in a number of states will continue to minimize Democratic chances at winning seats.

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The party also has the problem of relying on a “boom-bust” coalition of young and minority voters who often show up in presidential years, only to stay at home during midterm elections. Getting those voters to the polls could once again cause problems for Democrats.

Democrats managed to actually pick up Senate seats in 2012 despite playing more defense, and many of their seats will be defended by battle-tested veteran campaigners. But 2014’s election slate could prove even tougher than 2012, depending on GOP recruitment, retirements and what the political atmosphere is like in two years.

They are defending seats in the Republican states of Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, and also have seats up in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. Republicans' only blue-state seat is in Maine, and if Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) runs for reelection, she's likely in good shape.

Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who have both said they’re running for reelection, are likely to face tough races in their conservative and Republican-trending states. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has been fundraising furiously, is also likely to face a strong challenge. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is expected to run again, and could face a tough general-election race — assuming he wins his primary; former Gov. Brian Schweitzer is rumored to be interested in challenging him.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.) has not said whether he’ll run again, though he’s recovered well from a 2008 brain aneurysm. Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has already formed an exploratory committee for the seat.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who is running for reelection, has already ramped up fundraising efforts for what could be a tough race in that swing state.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is 76, is a top retirement possibility, and his June speech blasting the coal industry for opposing an Environmental Protection Agency rule was read by many as a sign that he has no plans on running again. Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) are considered retirement possibilities, and if they retire, those seats could be in jeopardy for Democrats.

Freshman Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.), Al Franken (Minn.), Jean Shaheen (N.H.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) could also face tough races.

Another possible headache for Democrats: If Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) winds up replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, defeated Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) could run for Kerry’s seat.

On the House side, while Democrats will have some opportunities at districts they missed out on in California and elsewhere, heavily gerrymandered GOP maps in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and North Carolina will continue to limit their opportunities.

Democrats tend to live in more urban areas, concentrating their votes into fewer congressional districts, and legally required “majority-minority” districts further pack Democrats into a few districts and make nearby districts more safely Republican.

According to a recent study by the Center for Voting and Democracy, Democrats start off with 166 safe districts while Republicans start off with 195. There are only 74 true swing districts where the presidential candidates won between 46 and 54 percent of the popular vote, down from 89 before redistricting.

That means the GOP needs to win less than one-third of competitive House seats to stay in control — something that shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish, barring a huge Democratic wave. In a politically neutral year Democrats are likely to have around 203 seats, a number that’s only slightly higher than the number they’ll have once the remaining 2012 races are called.

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