For conservatives in 2014, 6 is a serious number. That’s how many net U.S. Senate seats currently held by Democrats need to be taken over by Republicans this year in order to take control of the chamber away from Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democrats.
Serious. But not serious enough. In order to insure Senate control beyond two years and into the next president’s administration, Republicans realistically need to convert at least 10 current Democrat senate seats, and more would be better.
Republicans need to play this chess game at least one move ahead because of what confronts them in 2016. That is when the seats won in the Tea Party wave of 2010 must be defended in a presidential year in what may well be a less favorable political environment. Vulnerable Republican Senators that year include freshmen holding seats in deep-blue Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Retirements or contentious primaries could also put Republican seats in purple Arizona and Iowa in jeopardy. Here in Missouri, Democrats (and their allies in the press) are already polishing the images of term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon and term-limited State Treasurer Clint Zweifel for possible challenges to freshman Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. Chances for offsetting 2016 GOP pickups of Democrat seats are probably limited to long shots in Colorado and Nevada. Even without coattails from a Democratic presidential win, a net four-seat Republican loss in 2016 is a realistic possibility.
Ten new Republican senate seats are needed in order to make up both the current 6-seat deficit and to allow for a net loss of four in two years. A Republican presidential win in 2016 would shave that number by one by giving the Republican vice-presidential candidate the tie-breaking vote now held by Joe Biden, but the GOP can’t rely on that happening.
Capturing ten or more net seats is a tall task, but this is the year when it could be done. The seats that are up for election this year are those elected in 2008, when Democrats won by riding a partisan wave generated by the unpopularity of outgoing Republican President George W. Bush and the intriguing “hope and change” campaign of Barack Obama. This year they must fight a counter partisan wave generated by the unpopularity of President Obama and his legislation that every one of them supported. With 2016 lurking on the horizon, Republicans need to maximize their 2014 advantage.
Six current Democrat seats up this year are in red states that both John McCain and Mitt Romney won in their unsuccessful presidential runs. A seventh is in a state that McCain lost but Romney won. Democrats have virtually conceded three of those seats, where incumbent Sens. Max Baucus (MT), Tim Johnson (SD) and Jay Rockefeller (WV) aren’t even seeking re-election, while Republican challengers to Sens. Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Kay Hagan (NC) are either already leading in the polls or within striking distance.
Additional seats in purple or blue states are also in serious play. Open seats in Michigan and Iowa are currently tossups, with flawed Democratic candidates. A wave like 2010 could also give Republican challengers a serious chance to oust first-term incumbents in Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia. Republicans have recruited quality challengers in all of those states.
Partially tempering the possible magnitude of the 2014 wave is the possibility that Democrats could seize Republican seats in deep-red Kentucky (where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is unpopular and just survived a contentious primary) and Georgia (where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement provoked another contentious Republican primary). At present, the personal popularity of blue-state Republican Sen. Susan Collins (ME) appears to keep her seat safe, but circumstances can change (as they did in 2012, when Maine’s other popular Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, retired unexpectedly).
That means Republicans must pretty much run the table of nearly all 17 (15 Democratic and 2 Republican) senate seats reasonably in play in 2014. That means neither the establishment nor the Tea Party can afford the luxury of sitting out an election whose primary their side lost. As I have written before, the worst RINO is still better than the best DINO, because each votes the party line when organizing control of the senate. As Dick Morris recently noted, senate control means, at minimum, control over judicial confirmations and treaty ratification (including the ability to reject unratified treaties that are nevertheless in effect under the Vienna Convention), as well as the ability to join the Republican House in passing good legislation that enjoys broad bipartisan support but is currently being blocked by the Democratic leadership.
Six may be a serious number for St. Louis Cardinals fans seeking cheap drinks at a gas station, but serious Senate math realistically requires Republicans to score not just a minimum six, but a big double-digit conquest this year. Even the historic 1994 Republican takeover of Congress only included 9 new senate seats, and the 2010 Tea Party revolt netted only 7. The Republicans’ most recent double-digit gain was the 12-seat take in 1980, thanks to coattails from Ronald Reagan’s ouster of President Jimmy Carter. We need another Gipper moment this year.