Mood turns somber for Democrats in 2014 contest for Senate control

President Obama talked earlier this year of a Democratic takeover of the House, but instead his party is now in danger of losing the Senate.

The latest blow to their hopes of keeping the upper chamber came from former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D),who opted out of a race to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.)

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Schweitzer’s decision deflated the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s annual retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, where many senators heard the news.

“People were very upset,” said a Democratic donor who was there.

That party seems likely to lose seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where it cannot find find strong candidates.

The GOP will probably need to capture six Democratic seats in 2014 to grab the majority, as Newark mayor Cory Booker is well positioned to win the seat held by interim Sen. Jeff Chiesa (R-N.J.) in a special election. Democrats hold a 54 to 46 advantage, counting two independents who caucus with them.

But they must also defend four vulnerable incumbents and the seat soon to be vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) in Iowa, a swing state.

Sens. Mark Pryor and Mark Begich, Democrats from Arkansas and Alaska, where Obama lost badly in 2012, are in greatest danger. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a three-term survivor perpetually on the GOP target list, and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who had a solid lead in a recent Public Policy Polling survey, will also have competitive races.

Pryor is seen as the most vulnerable, though Begich is a close second.

The Arkansan has taken hits from the right and the left this year as the anti-tax group Club For Growth and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, have aired attack ads against him. A late-June poll commissioned by the Senate Conservatives Fund showed him in a dead heat with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

Senate Republicans, left dispirited after a net loss of two seats in 2012, now feel a gust of optimism.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) says his colleagues are becoming more energetic as they see the rising possibility of a GOP Senate majority in 2015.

“That lends itself to people working harder, that lends itself to people contributing more,” Moran said.

Republicans have history on their side. The president’s party has lost Senate seats in almost every midterm election of his second term going back to 1938. The exception is 1998, when neither party picked up a seat in the middle of Bill Clinton’s second term.

Democrats will have to defend 21 seats while Republicans must worry about only 13. The most vulnerable Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). He has weak approval numbers but has amassed nearly $10 million with which to fund his campaign. He also has experience on his side; his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, is only 34 years old.

Midterm turnout is expected to be lower, older and whiter than in last year’s presidential election, which should favor Republicans.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats are slightly favored to hold their majority because Republicans could be hurt again by choosing candidates who perform poorly in general elections.

“I would give Democrats a very slight edge today. The primary process hasn’t played out,” she said.

Republicans know recruiting is important.

“The difference between 2010 and 2012 is, I think, the quality of the candidates,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who chaired the NRSC in the last two election cycles. “The lesson learned here is we need to try to recruit good candidates and if you don’t have good candidates, you’re not likely to win.”

Republicans picked up six seats in 2010.

Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund helped Tea-Party favored candidates in primaries in the past two election cycles but the playing field will be more even next year. American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC linked to Karl Rove, will back candidates it sees as having a better chance to win in general elections.

Democrats scored a victory in Iowa earlier this year by recruiting their top prospect, Rep. Bruce Braley (D), who has proven his ability to win tight races in Iowa’s competitive 1st district.

Cary Covington, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said, “there’s a sense this is Braley’s race to lose”.

“What Braley has going for him is Iowa voters like split party control” of the Senate seats, he said.

A slew of Republicans have declared their candidacies, including Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) former chief of staff, but none of them are well known.

The most prominent are former U.S. attorney and Iowa football player Matt Whitaker, David Young, the former Grassley staffer, radio talk show host Sam Clovis, and Joni Ernst, a military veteran and state senator.

The primaries will do much to decide which party controls of the Senate. There are 15 months to go until Election Day and predictions and polls will fluctuate.

“At this time in my cycle, I was done, I was history. Everyone in this town had written me off,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who was expected to lose last year until former Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) campaign against her imploded when he made awkward comments about rape and pregnancy.