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. 

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 JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonCourt ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Bank lobbyists counting down to Shelby’s exit Former GOP senator endorses Clinton after Orlando shooting MORE (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 BegichMark Peter BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (Alaska), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.), Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuProject Veritas at risk of losing fundraising license in New York, AG warns You want to recall John McCain? Good luck, it will be impossible CNN producer on new O'Keefe video: Voters are 'stupid,' Trump is 'crazy' MORE (La.), Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganPolitics is purple in North Carolina Democrats can win North Carolina just like Jimmy Carter did in 1976 North Carolina will be a big battleground state in 2020 MORE (N.C.) and Max BaucusMax Sieben Baucus2020 Dems pose a big dilemma for Schumer Steady American leadership is key to success with China and Korea Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate MORE (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 CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoAt least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together Overnight Tech: Intel chief says 'no doubt' Russia will meddle in midterms | Dems press FCC over net neutrality comments | Bill aims to bridge rural-urban digital divide | FCC to review rules on children's TV Senators offer bill to close rural-urban internet divide MORE (R-W.Va.) are the early favorites in those states. 

Democrats have struggled to recruit a candidate to run for Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerOvernight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term Obama to preserve torture report in presidential papers MORE’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 HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinTrump should require federal contractors to follow the law Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood MORE (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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (Ky.) could be vulnerable, but will go into a race as a favorite. 

GOP Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE’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 FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard? Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Sen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats MORE (D-Minn.), 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-Colo.) and 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 (D-N.H.), though all appear to be in a strong position for reelection at this point.