Democrats must defend 21 seats in 2014, including six in states that President Obama lost in 2012 by double-digit margins, while Republicans are defending 14. In addition, veteran Democrats John D. Rockefeller IV (W. Va.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) — whose appeal at the ballot box will be hard for their party to replace — are retiring.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to retake the majority they lost in 2006, and recent history suggests that the task is doable, if difficult. More concerning for Republicans, however, is whether they will again have to endure nasty primaries that produce either triumphant insurgents with limited appeal or establishment survivors who underperform with conservative voters in the general election.
There are already declared and potential candidates that the GOP establishment sees as less than desirable, including Reps. Paul C. Broun and Phil Gingrey of Georgia, Rep. Steve King (Iowa), Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) and former congressman Jeffrey M. Landry (La.).
Senate Republicans have conducted an internal review of their recent failures to better prepare themselves for the pitfalls ahead, both in defending incumbents and in playing offense in winnable races.
The review is similar to the “autopsy” that the Republican National Committee performed after Mitt Romney’s disappointing loss to Obama last year.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) surveyed candidates, staff and consultants involved in 20 Senate races over the past three elections. The single biggest problem identified was poor communication support in dealing with the fast pace of modern campaigns, GOP strategists said.
For example, when candidates made gaffes in debates or local interviews, it would sometimes take days to repair the damage. The NRSC dispatched senior media advisers from Washington to stumbling campaigns in places such as North Dakota and Wisconsin in 2012 and Nevada and Kentucky in 2010.
They lost three of those races, and the NRSC postmortem determined that by the time the top advisers got to the states, it was too late to fix the problems. In 2014, they hope to avoid falling behind and to use the disparity in the number of seats up for grabs to their advantage.
But for Democrats, playing defense will be nothing new.
In November, they had to defend 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs in 2012. They could afford to lose only four seats to maintain a majority, and several of their veterans retired after long runs representing conservative states.
But instead of losing ground, Democrats gained seats —which seemed unthinkable in March 2011 — by holding all 23 and picking off two from Republicans.