Expanded map boosts GOP confidence

Republicans have a new spring in their step as an expanding electoral map has boosted their chances of recapturing the Senate.

In order to flip the six seats they need to win back control, Republicans now believe they have widened the map to nearly a dozen competitive contests — a marked jump from earlier this year. 

The latest good news for the GOP came this past week when former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie announced he would run in Virginia against Sen. Mark Warner (D), a state previously thought to be off the table. 

But while Republicans are feeling increasingly optimistic, they are stopping short of bold public predictions, remembering the dashed expectations of recent election cycles in which Tea Party candidates torpedoed their chances.  

“After the last couple of cycles, confidence is hard to come by in our caucus, but we’re hopeful,” said a senior GOP senator. “Michigan, Iowa and Virginia are races where the outcome could exceed our expectations.”

Now, Republicans don’t necessarily have to run the table, putting Democrats on defense in more competitive contests with only two of their own — Kentucky and Georgia — to really defend. 

“Before we were looking at having to win six out of seven races. Now it’s six out of 10 or 11,” the Republican senator added. 

Their silver bullet is familiar — ObamaCare.  Hardly a day goes by in the Senate without a Republican taking to the floor to triumphantly bash the Affordable Care Act, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) warned would turn out to be a colossal policy mistake when it passed in 2010.    

“We are optimistic because I think the American people realize the Democrats really have not led. We’ve had five straight years of really bad economics,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is hoping to take over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee before he retires in 2018. 

“I’m encouraged, I think we have a good chance,” Hatch said of GOP hopes. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who would be poised to become the chairman of the Budget Committee if Republicans win the Senate, feels similarly sanguine.

“I’m more optimistic because I sense there’s a growing frustration with the Democratic Senate and the president’s political maneuverings and lack of candor,” said Sessions.

Republicans have pounced on Obama’s initial promise that under the new law people could keep their healthcare plans if they liked them. The president has apologized to people who have since lost their health insurance. But Republicans say it’s too little too late, and argue that fallacy has put even Democratic-leaning open states in play, such as Michigan and Iowa. 

Both Democratic and GOP public polls have shown former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land with a narrow lead over Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D). Land raised an impressive $3.7 million through the end of the year. 

In Iowa, a December poll by the Des Moines Register showed Obama’s disapproval rating at 61 percent, a record for his presidency. In that state, Republicans are hopeful they can capitalize on that discontent against Rep. Bruce Braley, Democrats’ likely nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D). But first, they’ll have to wade through a messy primary and possible GOP convention. 

Outside groups are already offering a hand in some of the seats once thought off the table. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers, this month launched a $1.8 million television and radio advertising campaign hitting the Democratic candidates in both Iowa and Michigan for supporting ObamaCare.  

“Republicans are well positioned to win the majority in the Senate; we have strong candidates, have expanded the map into purple and blue states, and the national political environment is strongly in our favor,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.). 

Democrats argue that they are well-positioned to defend open seats and even take advantage of potential GOP bloodbaths. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee touted the recruitment of strong candidates in Montana and West Virginia and their ability to defend seats where Democrats are retiring in deep red states. Also, the party believes divisive GOP primaries in Kentucky and Georgia could help their candidates there. 

"Democrats acknowledge the task at hand but we are out-raising, out-organzing and out-campaigning our opponents up and down the map and Republicans are still plagued with numerous Tea Party primaries that are going to render their candidates unelectable," he said.  

For Republicans, putting more races up for grabs is still an asset, adding to their earlier ripe target list — open seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana. Add that to strong changes against incumbents in GOP-leaning state: Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), and Democrats could find themselves even further hamstrung come November. 

“The importance of having a bigger map to compete in is that on Election Day you have that many more races on the table,” said Mike McSherry, a former NRSC deputy political director. “You have a better chance of winning. It’s a percentages game.”

Political handicappers agree the battleground map is looking rosier for Republicans, but warn it’s too early to pick a favorite to control the upper chamber next year.

“Yes, I do think it looks better [for Republicans,]” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “Am I at the Senate is a 50-50 proposition? I’m not quite there yet.”

Duffy said she will become more convinced of the Republicans’ chances once their candidates are settled in states such as Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky. Democrats see their best chances of pickups in the seats held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and McConnell.

She said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D) re-election bid in New Hampshire could become a toss up if former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who recently moved to the Granite State, jumps in the race.

Four Republicans are polling in double digits in the Georgia primary and McConnell faces a challenger backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project. 

“Iowa could be the biggest train wreck of all if they end up in a convention,” Duffy warned.  

If no Republican candidate in the Hawkeye State gets 35 percent in the June primary, a party convention will pick the nominee. Duffy and other experts say there’s a high chance a far-right Tea Party candidate could emerge. 

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, also cautioned that Republicans should not count the Old Dominion contest in their column just yet.  

“I think Virginia gets a lot of hype because it’s so close to Washington and it’s a new swing state,” he said. “I still think Warner’s a pretty solid favorite.” 

Even if Democrats hold their seats in Michigan, Iowa and Virginia, the money and resources they spend defending them could help Republicans in more conservative states such as Arkansas and Alaska. If Democrats are forced to spend to defend more solidly blue states, they could shift their resources away from races in red states.  

“That takes away from the most competitive races where the Democrats are running uphill and need to win,” said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in studying the Senate.