Senate GOP buoyant about midterms

Politics was at the forefront of Republicans senators’ minds at their annual retreat on Wednesday.

After hearing from a congressional handicapper and conservative observers at the Library of Congress, there’s growing optimism among GOP lawmakers that their odds of becoming the majority party are on the rise.

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GOP strategists have been touting the party’s chances of picking up the six seats they need to take back the Senate for months. But some once-burned veteran senators are skeptical of bold internal predictions, after they saw their caucus shrink two seats in 2012.

“I feel very good about it. However, this time two years ago, I felt good about it, too” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “Anything can come along and totally change things.”

Senate Republicans note their position looked much worse only a few months ago in the midst of the government shutdown, when the party’s approval rating dropped to a record low.

But hearing Wednesday from Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report and a respected handicapper, that they are slightly favored to win control of the upper chamber boosted their confidence.

Rothenberg's prediction echoed his newsletter’s public take that GOP pickups this fall will range between four and seven seats, and gave Republicans a better than even chance of winning control.

One GOP lawmaker called Rothenberg’s presentation a “reality check.”

“Otherwise, we would just be drinking our own bathwater,” the lawmaker said in reference to relying solely on internal Republican polling.

Other political analysts are more skeptical about Senate Republicans’ chances of winning the majority, though.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report, said Republicans still have to worry about Tea Party candidates who could win primary races but implode in the general election, like former Rep. Todd Akin (R) did in Missouri in 2012.

Other guest speakers at Wednesday’s retreat included New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, American Enterprise President Arthur Brooks, Yuval Levin, a conservative policy expert, and Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at the National Review.

As the Republican National Committee seeks to beef up their digital presence to chip away at Democrats’ technology edge, they also heard from RNC Chief Digital Officer Chuck DeFeo and Chief Technology Officer Andy Barkett.

While the morning might have been about politics, the GOP’s focus turned to policy in the afternoon, discussing their strategy going forward on the debt limit and immigration.

Senate Republicans received another shot of good news at the retreat Wednesday, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told them privately that he does not expect another knock-down, drag-out fight to raise the debt limit later this month.

Cantor predicted the House would pass legislation expanding the nation’s borrowing authority with a large, bipartisan vote, according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

A House GOP aide said House Republican leaders expect a bipartisan vote but not necessarily a large one and are exploring ways to muster Democratic support.

Cantor’s remarks signaled to the Senate that House GOP leaders are not going to insist on attaching a highly controversial rider, such as repealing a portion of ObamaCare, to the debt-limit measure.

Immigration reform is another potential landmine for Republicans. Senate Republicans don’t want to see the issue rear its head again in the summer or fall, when it could spark an angry backlash from their conservative base at the height of primary season.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Tuesday ruled out a bipartisan bargain on immigration reform this year.

“I think we have sort of an irresolvable conflict here,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Congress should consider incremental immigration reforms that have broad bipartisan support instead of a sprawling overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

“I would welcome the opportunity to deal with those issues that are broadly supported,” he said. “You don’t have to deal with everything. We ought to deal with what we can.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said it would make sense to wait until 2015 to tackle immigration reform, when Republicans could control both chambers of Congress.

“I think we’d get a better policy if we have Republican majorities writing the bill,” he said.

Russell Berman contributed reporting.