Political parties build dueling narratives for 2014 Senate races

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Democratic optimism at holding the Senate remains high just a year out from Election Day, as emerging primaries and a toxic Republican brand complicate some of the GOP’s must-win races this cycle.

Still, the botched rollout of the ObamaCare enrollment website has put a punctuation mark on the argument Republicans have been making against the law for years now: It has refocused attention on what the party believes is ultimately a symbol for exactly the kind of government overreach that they believe voters will go to the polls to repudiate in 2014.

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A midterm election produces the kind of turnout, Republicans point out, that favors the party not in power. And President Obama’s favorables are the lowest they’ve ever been, giving Republicans another opportunity to run against a Democratic figurehead who remains deeply unpopular in some of their top targeted states and inspires the GOP base to turn out.

Republicans need to pick up seven seats to take back the Senate majority, and the fundamentals of the 2014 map favor the GOP. Democrats are defending 21 seats, seven in states Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential race, while Republicans only need to defend 14 — and only two of those are currently in play.

The Hill’s inaugural race ratings give Republicans a likelihood of picking up three Democratic-held states — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — while two of their top targets, Arkansas and Alaska, are pure toss-ups at this point. But two others, Louisiana and North Carolina, favor Democrats.

In South Dakota and West Virginia, Democratic recruiting failures have all but delivered deep-red states to Republicans, and Montana’s increasingly red tint makes it favorable to the top Republican candidate, Rep. Steve Daines.

But Republican candidates in Arkansas and Alaska haven’t yet proven themselves, while Democratic incumbents in North Carolina and Louisiana have proven to be remarkably resilient.

Democrats believe the map could continue to shift in their favor if contentious Republican primaries produce weak candidates in winnable races, as happened in 2012.

“The Tea Party primaries on the Republican side are incredibly damaging to them, both financially and organizationally. And I say that because all of our candidates are building financial advantages, building their teams, while Republicans are fighting with each other,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.

“It prevents them from being able to focus on their Democratic opponents.”

In particular, Democrats are eyeing the eight-way primary in Georgia, pitting a handful of deeply conservative hopefuls known for making off-color comments, as likely to produce a flawed candidate — and they tout their own candidate, top recruit Michelle Nunn, as a formidable challenger.

Republicans admit the Louisiana Senate primary — where Rob Maness, backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, is up against establishment pick Rep. Bill Cassidy — could complicate their chances at taking that seat, currently held by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), if the race heads to a runoff.

Louisiana, unlike most states, holds a “jungle primary” in which all parties compete and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off in the general election.

In Kentucky, Democrats hope that conservative challenger Matt Bevin will at least draw substantial funds and attention from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), giving Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state’s secretary of State time to amass a substantial war chest and prepare a solid campaign for the general election.

Republicans admit this could be the case — but insist business groups and the GOP establishment plans to battle back.

“The efforts by some outside groups to really cannibalize the party is not helpful,” said Brian Walsh, formerly a communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). “Many in the business community around the country are angry with the outsized role that a few select groups are playing, and I expect that it will engage them more [in 2014].”

Beyond primaries, however, Democrats believe the 2014 election will be one of contrasts — pitting, as Barasky put it, “thoughtful, independent Democrats who work across the aisle to come up with responsible solutions for their state against reckless Republican candidates.”

They say that the shutdown was a prime example of that recklessness, and point to the polling showing the GOP brand at an all-time low with Americans as evidence that the fallout from the situation will hurt even those candidates not in Congress when it occurred.

For those Republicans in Congress — Cassidy in Louisiana, Daines in Montana, Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, and Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston in Georgia — Democrats have already sought to make the shutdown a lasting issue, charging in attacks that they own the situation, as well as the millions it cost Americans, because of their votes that effectively continued it.

An early indicator of how much the shutdown could hurt Republican candidates came when Cotton voted against his typical constituency of hard-line conservatives and for a compromise to reopen the government.

Republicans point out that Democrats took a hit from the shutdown as well, and believe it created an anti-incumbent fervor that’s likely to hurt Democrats as much as Republicans.

“The shutdown is a symptom of a problem for Obama. The long-term political implications are going to be more Washington hatred, and that is a good thing for Republicans challenging vulnerable and unpopular Democrats,” said NRSC communications director Brad Dayspring.

Although they admit the currently low opinion of the GOP is likely to shift over the next year, Democrats argue that the shutdown simply feeds into a narrative Republicans have built of recklessness and, as Senate Majority PAC strategist Ty Matsdorf put it, irresponsibility.

“I think that what it shows is that you have a very irresponsible faction of the Republican Party leading it around, and I think voters realize that that’s not in their best interest to support Republican candidates,” Matsdorf said.

But Republicans believe ObamaCare, as the law continues its botched rollout, will render the shutdown backlash a moot point.

Evidence of the law’s potential harm emerged immediately after the website rollout made headlines for the glitches that seized the site and deterred potential enrollees. New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) last month penned a letter calling for an extension of the enrollment deadline, and was joined by vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Landrieu.

Democrats insist the Obama- Care issues won’t matter a year from now, as increasing numbers of Americans reap the law’s benefits. They point to polling that shows a majority of Americans want to fix the law, rather than repeal it, as Republicans have repeatedly tried to do.

But Republicans say even if the site glitches get worked out, the issue with Obama- Care remains.

“It’s not just the rollout, per se — it’s the consequences the law will have for many Americans around the country, and we’re seeing that already,” Walsh said.

NRSC senior adviser Kevin McLaughlin told The Hill that the law is just the “vehicle” to focus discontent with Democrats.