Here’s How Republicans Can Take Over the Senate

There are many opportunities for GOP pickups in states where Democrats are weak.

One difference between professional athletes and fans, and between coaches and cheerleaders, is that while all of them see opportunities for their teams, the athletes and coaches are more likely to also see, and at least privately acknowledge, potential pitfalls. The 2014 Senate races, which are really a fight over who will hold the majority in the chamber, provide plenty of pitfalls for political professionals in both parties to worry about.

On its face, the math certainly creates opportunities for Republicans. Twenty Democratic seats are up in 2014, compared with only 15 for Republicans, although by the time of the election the numbers will be 21 and 14. (That’s because the New Jersey seat of the late Democrat Frank Lautenberg is now held by appointed Republican Jeffrey Chiesa, and it will almost certainly flip back to the Democrats in October.) As a result, while the current 54-46 partisan split (with independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucusing with Democrats) means that Republicans need only a five-seat gain to reach a majority, the bar will be raised to six seats after the New Jersey special election. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Democrats will have 21 seats to defend and that Republicans will need a six-seat gain.

Here is how the math works. Democrats have 34 seats that aren’t up in 2014. Of the 21 that are up, seven are sure bets, meaning that Democrats can count on 41 seats going into the election. Republicans have 31 seats that aren’t up, plus 11 more on the ballot next year that are done deals. That means Republicans can count on 42 seats. Democrats currently have a clear edge in four races: Edward Markey in Massachusetts, Brian Schatz in Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Mark Udall in Colorado. Republicans have one analogous incumbent—Susan Collins in Maine. That brings the Democrats up to 45 seats they can feel comfortable about, to the Republicans’ 43.

Next, let’s look at the expected-loss category. Republicans don’t have any seats that currently look like goners. In contrast, Democrats have three—the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Of course, surprises can occur; that’s what elections are for, but they would be true upsets in these states. Pushing those three into the GOP column puts the new Senate breakdown at 45 Democrats to 46 Republicans.

Then there are the races that are competitive but where the party now holding the seat has a clear advantage, although it’s an advantage that could evaporate if the opposition party fields a strong candidate. Republicans have no seats in this column, while Democrats have three—the Minnesota race featuring incumbent Al Franken, and the open seats in Iowa and Michigan. The real coup would be if Republicans can lure House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp into running in the Motor State. Camp will be term-limited out of his current chairmanship after this Congress, making a Senate race potentially more enticing to him. For now, all three seats tilt Democratic, giving the party a 48-46 edge.

That brings us to the final half-dozen seats, four held by Democrats and two by Republicans. For Democrats to keep their majority with 50 seats (Vice President Joe Biden would break a 50-50 tie), they must win two of the six. In four of the races, Democratic incumbents will face stiff challenges: Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Republicans have two seats in this category—the one held by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and the open Georgia seat.

That Democrats need to win only two of the six most competitive races would suggest that they have a comfortable edge—or that Republicans’ path to a majority is very narrow, as they must win five of the six to claim 51 seats. But two potentially offsetting factors could make the Democrats’ task more difficult.

First, the six most-competitive contests are in states of varying shades of red. By this measure, Hagan may be in the best shape, since GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won North Carolina by only 2 points. Romney carried Alaska (Begich) by 14 points, Arkansas (Pryor) by 24 points, and Louisiana (Landrieu) by 17 points, making them tough states for Democrats these days. Romney also won the two states with competitive races for GOP-held seats: Georgia backed Romney by 8 points, while Kentucky gave him a whopping 23-point advantage over President Obama. Keep in mind that even though the Republican Party is suffering from some real “brand” image problems nationally, it is far better off in these six states.

The final consideration is that the voter groups that were so helpful to Obama in 2008 and 2012—unmarried women, young people, and minorities—are far less likely to turn out in a midterm election when Obama’s name won’t be on the ballot.

The bottom line: While Republicans have a narrow path to the majority, the seats they must win are in friendly states, and turnout will work in their favor because this is a midterm election. It’s going to be a heck of a fight.