GOP confidence in Senate takeover grows as challenges mount for Dems

Republicans increasingly see the Senate majority as being in play in 2014. 

Democrats are defending 20 seats, including seven in states President Obama lost in the last election, and they have seen five of their incumbents retire, raising their bar for holding the upper chamber. 

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Republicans would have to win six seats to take over the Senate, a sizable number. But in a midterm election year — when a president’s party historically loses congressional seats — GOP confidence is growing.

“The playing field is shaping up to be a positive one for Republicans in 2014,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said. Retirements by Democrats such as Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), who formally announced Tuesday he would leave the Senate at the end of this term, are helping the GOP, he said.

Dayspring acknowledged winning the Senate won’t be easy: Republicans must get “consensus candidates” and make sure they are ready for battle. In 2012, the GOP entered the election cycle thinking it would win the upper chamber and failed, partly because of flawed candidates. 

But he said things are shaping up well for the party this time.

“The playing field and weather conditions are great for us. Now we have to go out and execute,” he said.

Democrats argue they’re in strong position to retain control of the Senate despite the tough map. Things looked just as tough in 2012, they note, and they picked up two Senate seats. 

“D.C. Republicans seem overconfident once again, even though the math is much more difficult for them this cycle and their influence with the conservative base has waned,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said. “The Republican establishment claims they are going to do a better job managing the Tea Party and handpicking mainstream candidates that can win, but they don’t seem to have any good strategy to do that.”

Republicans’ best pickup opportunities are the seven seats held by Democrats in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. 

Open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia lead the list, and other targets include Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Max Baucus (Mont.).

Republicans have landed strong recruits in South Dakota and West Virginia, two seats that voted solidly against Obama in 2012. Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) are the early favorites in those states. 

Democrats have struggled to recruit a candidate to run for Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) seat, though they argue former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (D) could both make South Dakota competitive. 

Republicans are still looking for candidates in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and Montana. 

Democratic worries in those states were highlighted by last week’s vote on the Senate Democratic budget. Only four Democrats voted against their party’s budget, but three of them were Begich, Pryor and Baucus. Landrieu voted for the budget.  

The fourth Democrat to vote against her party’s budget was Hagen, who is also vulnerable in 2014. 

Divisive primaries could throw off Republicans in some states, though. 

In South Dakota, leaders of some outside conservative groups on Tuesday questioned whether Rounds is conservative enough to win their backing. 

In Alaska, flawed 2010 GOP Senate nominee Joe Miller is mulling another run and could complicate his party’s chances at defeating Begich. 

West Virginia looks like a likely GOP pickup if Capito is the nominee, yet some conservative groups have grumbled about her voting record, including the deep-pocketed Club for Growth.

There are other states Republicans hope to make competitive, including Iowa and Michigan, where Democrats are not running for reelection. 

Both states were carried by Obama in 2012, so they do not represent the same opportunities as West Virginia and South Dakota. Yet with strong candidates, they could be winnable for the GOP. 

Republicans have been worried that their chances of succeeding retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D) in Iowa will be impaired if conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) runs for the Senate. 

King, who has made controversial comments about a host of subjects, might not play well with a statewide audience. 

In 2012, GOP hopes of winning the Senate were hurt by their inability to hold on to several seats. 

The party lost Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) seat in a state easily won by Obama. Former Sen. Olympia Snowe’s retirement put Maine in play, another state won by Obama. 

In 2014, the GOP has fewer tough races to defend. 

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) could be vulnerable, but will go into a race as a favorite. 

GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s retirement put Georgia, a relatively safe state for Republicans, into play. A crowded GOP primary field in the state could open the door for Democrats, but the GOP candidate is likely to be a prohibitive favorite. 

The GOP also has an eye on Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), though all appear to be in a strong position for reelection at this point.