Thought the Senate map was set?

Thought the Senate map was set?
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The past week brought a significant 2014 shake-up in the upper chamber math, as Republicans and Democrats each landed top recruits in Colorado and Mississippi, putting races in play that had long been an afterthought.

The sudden change in the political calculus exposed the political vulnerabilities for both sides. Democrats are grappling with an unpopular president who is a drag in swing states and even some liberal bastions. But Republicans face a divide in their ranks that threatens to hobble their slate of general election candidates. 

Whichever side can correct the weaknesses could be the side that emerges with the upper hand — and the majority — come November.

In Colorado, Republicans convinced a top-tier recruit who had previously passed on it to join the race, giving them hope for a pickup. But as a GOP civil war rages in Mississippi, Democrats landed the one candidate who could give them a chance to take advantage of Republican missteps.

As soon as Rep. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe siren of Baton Rouge Senate confirms John Demers to head DOJ national security division Senate rejects bipartisan measure as immigration votes begin MORE (R-Colo.) jumped into the Colorado Senate race, most of his other primary opponents stepped aside, giving him a clearer path to victory in the June primary.

The sophomore congressman certainly doesn’t start as the favorite against Sen. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocratic primary could upend bid for Colorado seat Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' MORE (D). Still, he forces Democrats to pay attention to the expensive swing state that many laughed off when Ken Buck, Republicans’ disastrous 2010 Senate nominee, looked like he was going to be their standard-bearer. 

The numbers were never particularly great for Udall in a state where President Obama has seen his own approval ratings crater. In a February poll conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Obama’s disapproval rating was at 53 percent in Colorado, up 11 points since April. That same GOP poll, which closely tracked with other public polls, showed 52 percent of voters said they wanted someone new as their senator, and 62 percent said they wouldn’t vote for Udall.

Colorado is one seat Democrats especially don’t want to lose, and the race will be especially close to the heart of the state’s other senator and current Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman, Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetColorado senators pitch immigration compromise Colorado senators mark Olympics with Senate hallway curling GOP Senate candidate fundraising lags behind Dems in key races MORE.

Democrats have the cash edge overall and have consistently outraised their GOP counterparts, as the DSCC led the NRSC in cash on hand by $5 million at the end of January. Outside groups and super-PACs will make up differences for both sides, though. 

Regardless, national Republicans argue they’ve now put 14 Democratic-held seats on the map. Some remain long shots, like Oregon or Minnesota, but polling in Michigan remains neck and neck, and even Iowa could be a real contest depending on who the GOP nominee is.

Retirements are still the Democrats’ Achilles’s heel, and just weeks away from the filing deadline in South Dakota, Democrats don’t look like they’re going to get a top candidate. 

Gardner may not be the last surprise Republicans have up their sleeve, either.

They’re still hopeful former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown will run in New Hampshire against Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: VA chief won't resign | Dem wants probe into VA hacking claim | Trump official denies plan for 'bloody nose' N. Korea strike | General '100 percent' confident in US missile defense Trump official denies US planning 'bloody nose' strike on North Korea House Oversight Committee opens probe into sexual abuse of gymnasts MORE. That was once a laughable scenario that looks more and more likely, and it’s hardly an easy race for him.

But like in Colorado, a Brown candidacy would cause Democrats to pay attention to the race in a way they wouldn’t without him. 

Indeed, if Democrats are looking at that wide a map by late summer, and open seats in red states look lost, their tepid six-seat majority could be in deeper peril than originally thought.

Their shining hope is that Republicans have been in that position before and squandered their chances with poor candidates and intra-party fights.

Developments like Friday’s in Mississippi, where Democrats recruited former Rep. Travis Childers into the contest, are exactly what Republicans don’t need. The fact that the one-term congressman was wooed into a long-shot contest shows Republicans still haven’t solved their primary problem.

Childers is Democrats’ insurance policy, the same way Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Dem group launches M ad buy to boost vulnerable senators Senate rejects Trump immigration plan MORE was in Indiana and even Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAfter Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE was, to a lesser degree, in Delaware in 2010 — and now both are in the Senate. But in the heart of Dixie, Democrats can’t win without a pro-gun, anti-abortion, conservative Democrat like Childers who voted against the Affordable Care Act. 

Childers checks nearly every box they need, but he still needs other things to go his way. Namely, he needs state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who’s seen as gaffe-prone by national strategists, to knock off veteran Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranOvernight Finance: Breaking down Trump's budget | White House finally releases infrastructure plan | Why it faces a tough road ahead | GOP, Dems feud over tax-cut aftermath | Markets rebound McConnell tees up budget deal McConnell urging Mississippi gov to appoint himself if Cochran resigns: report MORE (R).

If any Senate incumbent is felled by the Tea Party this cycle, it would likely be Cochran. But establishment Republicans are taking a renewed interest in primaries and have McDaniel in their sights.

But unfortunately for the GOP, Childers forces them to take the race seriously. Come September and October, they don’t want to be spending money in Mississippi, a state that should be a lock.

Plus, Republicans still aren’t out of the woods in North Carolina, Iowa and especially Georgia, where Democrats have one of their strongest recruits this cycle in Michelle Nunn. 

This past week has shown that both parties still have demons to wrestle, and those have caused the 2014 landscape to look drastically different than it did one year ago.