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.
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 GardnerTrump applauds congressional allies as he kicks off inaugural festivities Overnight Tech: Tech listens for clues at Sessions hearing | EU weighs expanding privacy rule | Senators blast Backpage execs Overnight Tech: Trump meets Alibaba founder | Uber to make some data public | GOP Lawmakers tapped for key tech panels 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 UdallLive coverage: Tillerson's hearing for State The rise and possible fall of the ‘Card’ in politics Gardner's chief of staff tapped for Senate GOP campaign director 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 BennetOvernight Finance: Scoop – Trump team eyes dramatic spending cuts | Treasury pick survives stormy hearing Mnuchin: Debt limit increase important, unclear on 'clean' hike Live coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick 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 Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenTrump poised to reinstate 'global gag rule' on Roe v. Wade anniversary: report Trump country Dem takes risk by skipping swearing-in 5 billion reasons Rex Tillerson is wrong 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 DonnellyJoe DonnellySenators introduce dueling miners bills Government to begin calling Indiana residents Hoosiers Pence meets with Kaine, Manchin amid Capitol Hill visit MORE was in Indiana and even Chris CoonsChris CoonsTrump, Democrats can bridge divide to make college more affordable Senate Dems urge Sessions to abstain from voting on Trump’s Cabinet picks Booker to vote against Tillerson 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 CochranThad CochranGOP senators voice misgivings about short-term spending bill Trump's wrong to pick Bannon or Sessions for anything Bottom Line 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.