Five Senate races to watch

Anne Wernikoff and Greg Nash

Democrats and Republicans are amassing enormous war chests for a midterm battle that will decide who controls the Senate for the remainder of President Obama’s term.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to reclaim the Senate majority, and are gunning for Democratic incumbents in conservative-leaning states like Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, West Virginia and Louisiana.

Democrats are mostly playing defense, but see a few opportunities to peel away seats from the GOP column.

Here are the five Senate races to watch in 2014.

KENTUCKY

The reelection bid of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the marquee race of the election cycle.

Outside groups on both sides have already spent more than $3.5 million dollars on the race, and are prepared to spend tens of millions more.

Republicans are looking to make healthcare reform and Obama’s environmental policies — which impact Kentucky’s coal industry — liabilities for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell’s likely opponent.

McConnell also has the backing of deep-pocketed groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which this month launched an ad touting his work defending the state’s coal industry.

But Democrats say McConnell can be beaten, and are pointing to his low approval ratings in Kentucky as they fundraise against him. They also think they have a strong candidate in Lundergan Grimes.

Plus, McConnell can’t focus on the general election just yet, as he is trying to beat back a primary challenge from conservative Matt Bevin.

NORTH CAROLINA

The Senate race in North Carolina could be a bellwether for 2014.

Of all the states where Republicans are fighting this election cycle, North Carolina is the one that went for Mitt Romney by the slimmest margin in 2012. If the GOP can’t knock off incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), their bid for the majority may well come up short.

But recent polling has shown Hagan taking a serious hit from the botched rollout of ObamaCare, with her disapproval rating jumping 10 percent in just two months, to nearly half the electorate.

Millions of dollars in outside spending is pouring into North Carolina, making it the most expensive race of the 2014 cycle thus far, according to a Roll Call analysis. Republicans are more than doubling the money spent by Democratic groups.

While the GOP wants to nationalize the race, Democrats are framing it as a referendum on the conservative agenda passed by the legislature under state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the establishment candidate.

Polling has shown Tillis’ support dropping in recent months, and he is facing questions from local activists about his conservative bona fides. A bruising fight between the five candidates in the GOP primary could hurt the party’s chances at taking back the seat.

ARKANSAS

The political terrain in Arkansas is such that even an error-free campaign backed by millions from outside groups might not be enough for Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

Pryor, the last Democrat remaining in Arkansas’s congressional delegation, is trying to appeal to voters on a personal level by touting his religious faith and his constituent services.

He’s also distancing himself from President Obama by touting his centrist record, which includes votes against expanded gun-control measures and support for fixes to ObamaCare.

But Republicans have a dream candidate in freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a Harvard-educated Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who has managed to win the backing of the establishment and the conservative grassroots. He has tied or led Pryor in two recent polls.

Republicans see the race as a referendum on Obama and his healthcare law, while Democrats hope painting the GOP as extremist and obstructionist will drag Cotton down.

Look for big-name party leaders to make a splash here. Former President Bill Clinton (D) and Mike Huckabee (R) remain popular with their respective parties in the state, and as both look towards a potential presidential run — Clinton for his wife, Huckabee for himself — the race could be a proving ground for both.

GEORGIA

Republicans are facing a crowded primary in Georgia’s Senate race that could cause fallout across the electoral map.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R-Ga.) retirement announcement prompted eight Republicans to jump into the party’s primary, and all of them are jockeying for support from the GOP’s right flank.

The candidates include three Georgia congressmen: Reps. Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston.

Democrats are hopeful that whichever candidate emerges will have cut too far to the right to remain competitive in the general election. They think they could win the seat with former nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn, who has built-in name recognition from her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D).

LOUISIANA

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is another top target for Republicans in 2014.

GOP operatives believe their preferred candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, is in a good position to take advantage of dissatisfaction with ObamaCare as a physician and outspoken critic of the law.

Still, Democrats hope to make Gov. Bobby Jindal’s rejection of the Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare an issue for Cassidy, who has criticized that portion of the law.

Landrieu is also battle-tested, and stands to benefit from the changing demographics of the state. She’s also in line to pick up the Energy Committee gavel thanks to Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) likely exit for an ambassadorship, a plum perch for a Democrat running in an oil-heavy state.

And though Cassidy has begun to coalesce some conservative support behind him, Republicans privately admit he could suffer if outside conservative groups back his main conservative challenger, retired Air Force colonel Rob Maness.