Handicapping the 2014 Senate races: An email conversation between The Fix and Paul Kane

May 30, 2013

The emails of the Post's Paul Kane are legendary in Washington: insightful, funny and full of his deep knowledge of Capitol Hill all at once. Hoping to let Fix readers in on the magic that is PK's emails, we've decided to publish a few of our better exchanges. You can read our back and forth of President Obama's golf diplomacy here. Today we handicap the battle for control of the Senate in 2014. Enjoy!

FIX: I wrote a big piece on the state of play in the Senate on Monday. In writing it, I realized — I probably should have realized this a loooong time ago — that Democrats are basically ceding two of their own seats to Republicans in 2014: West Virginia and South Dakota.

In West Virginia, there's just no Democratic candidate while Republicans got their first pick in Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Yes, she's got a primary but there's questions (at least to me) about whether her challenger can raise real money and be viable. In South Dakota, the two Democrats that might have been able to win (Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Brendan Johnson) have said "no", leaving the party with Rick Weiland who might be a great guy but whose political experience is two losing congressional races. Also, he apparently is unrelated to former "Stone Temple Pilots" frontman Scott Weiland.

Is this less of a big deal than I think it is? Assuming WV and SD are essentially over, Republicans need to pick up 4 more seats to take back the majority. That seems more doable to me than 6.

PK: This is what happens when Chuck Schumer enters the elder statesman/legislator era of his career! All of a sudden, no one’s paying attention to the recruiting when the Chuckwagon is rolling on immigration and media shield laws and more bipartisan “Gangs”. OK, OK, I’m exaggerating for the sake of trying to be funny. But it’s just very unusual for Democrats to leave Senate seats on the table.

Sure, it’s difficult for a Dem to win in West Virginia in a 6-year-itch midterm, but this is also a state that gave Joe Manchin 61 percent just last year. They just don’t seem to have any bench there. (Note: The GOP bench also appears to have just one occupant --  Capito -- but at least she’s running.) And SD is similarly difficult but Herseth Sandlin has won 4 statewide elections already, and Tim Johnson has won 8 times statewide (5 House terms, 3 Senate), so his son would have a decent shot at winning.

Which is why I mentioned Schumer. From 2005 through 2008, he ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and they had an amazing recruiting run. They didn’t always get their top candidate (Jeff Merkley was probably the 3rd or 4th target in Oregon; I can’t remember that guy’s name who ran against McConnell in ’08, Lunsford or something forgettable) but they put every seat possible in play. They stretched the map and made R's play defense in places that should have been easy holds, like Tennessee in ’06 and Mississippi/Georgia/Kentucky in ’08. Schumer’s successors did the same strategy in ’10 (Coons in Delaware) and ’12 (Joe Donnelly in Indiana), picking up seats no one thought possible because they had a decent nominee in place who could take advantage of the other side’s screwups.

So, if you’re giving SD and W. Va. to the Rs, then rank for me the next 5 races and what the odds are of the seat switching hands.

FIX: Ok. I usually resist rankings things but for you. Ah, who am I kidding? I LOVE ranking things!

Here goes. If Republicans win SD and WV they have to win four of these six: Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina. In order from most likely to flip from D to R:

Alaska.  I think Mark Begich is a smart dude and a good politician. But, I just read Stu's breakdown of how badly Democrats have done in statewide races in Alaska and became convinced it's going to be a VERY tough hold. And, yes, I am aware Joe Miller is running.

Arkansas. Six years ago, NO REPUBLICAN CHALLENGED MARK PRYOR. I put it in all caps because it's that amazing.  He's not going to get so lucky this time

Louisiana. Mary Landrieu never wins with more than 52%. So, she's vulnerable. Again.

North Carolina. Not a great Republican bench but Kay Hagan got elected in a great Democratic year in NC (2008) and won't be running in that environment again.

Iowa. No known Republicans ran. I know and like David Young, who is now in the race for Republicans but he's been a staffer for politicians not a politician himself. Tough transition.

Montana: This ranking is based on Brian Schweitzer, the ex-gov running for Democrats. If he doesn't run, this race moves way up.

Last question for you: Every cycle there is a sleeper Senate race. North Dakota and Indiana jump to mind in 2012. What race aren't we talking about right now that we will be talking about in a year's time?

PK: Nice breakdown. I’m gonna have to go read Stu’s take on that state. People forget this, but Begich was not declared the winner until the week of Thanksgiving. On election night Ted Stevens – who was found guilty less than two weeks before Election Day – was ahead by a couple thousand votes, but so many votes came from far-flung places that eventually Begich won.

(Side note: They’d eventually have a 60-senator caucus, but Dems went to sleep Election Night ’08 with only 56 certain! Oregon, Alaska and Minnesota hadn’t been called, and Specter was 6 months away from switching parties.)

In each of those top four races you’ve listed, Rs are trying to re-litigate the health-care law. Begich, Pryor, Landrieu and Hagan all voted for “Obamacare” and this is their first time on the ballot since. Republicans believe they can nationalize these races around those votes. Once again Senate Rs will try to nationalize the races, and Ds will once again run these races as mini-presidential campaigns built around the individual personalities and the broad cross-section of positions taken by incumbents.

My wild card: Scott Brown. For one of three reasons, we will be talking about Downtown Scotty Brown post-Labor Day 2014:

1) He will have shocked the world and actually run for Senate in NH against Jeanne Shaheen, putting a previously uncontested race in play.

2) He will have watched Ed Markey stumble across the finish line in the June 25 special and decide that the Democrat is ripe for a challenge in 2014 for the full 6-year term.

3) He will have opted against electoral politics, and we will all look back on his decision not to run in the special against Markey as a key moment that kept the majority out of reach for Rs because they couldn’t put enough seats in play.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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