With the announcement on Tuesday of Senator Tim Johnson’s pending retirement, the playing field for Senate 2014 is becoming more clear — and more clearly tilting towards Republican gains.

Still to be determined, however, is whether candidates — who are very important in deciding Senate contests — will once again bail out the Democrats. It’s also too soon to be able to guess at whether the political environment next fall will favor one party or the other.

The Republican Party remains unpopular, and that seems to be a long term condition. But whether Barack Obama and the Democrats can benefit from that (as they have in three of the last four election cycles) or if they too are unpopular (as was the case in 2010) will depend on the politics and the events of the months to come. Since Senate election cycles outcomes are combinations of individual seat factors and national trends, that means we can’t make any real predictions this early. But we can begin to assess those individual seats.

Democratic pickup opportunities:

Almost nonexistent. The top three would be the open seat in Georgia, Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, and Susan Collins’s seat in Maine. In Georgia, Democrats depend on both recruiting a good candidate and having a Republican primary failure, with a very weak candidate emerging. That’s possible, making this the most likely pickup. McConnell isn’t the most popular politician, but Kentucky is trending Republican enough that it probably won’t imperil his chances. And Collins will likely escape (again) without a strong challenger.

Republican pickup opportunities:

Strong chances: Republicans have already recruited strong candidates for open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia. Former governor Mike Rounds will vie for the seat of retiring Tim Johnson, and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito will go for the seat of retiring Jay Rockefeller. Democrats have two good potential candidates in South Dakota, but even if the best Dems run in those states, they will both lean Republican.

Good chances: The open seat in Iowa, and vulnerable Democratic incumbents in North Carolina (Kay Hagan), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), Montana (Max Baucus), Alaska (Mark Begich), and Louisiana (Mary Landrieu). The key to these will be GOP recruitment, which is just getting under way. Each of these states went for Romney in 2012, most of them by a comfortable margin. But most of these Senators are good fits for their states — it’s a question of whether swing voters will go with the party or the candidate they’re more comfortable with.

Slimmer chances: Open seats in Michigan and New Jersey seem more likely to stay Democratic, though Republicans could conceivably win in one or both states. Several more Democratic incumbents (Al Franken in Minnesota,Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Mark Udall in Colorado, Tom Udall in New Mexico, and Mark Warner in Virginia) could potentially be vulnerable, but would require absolutely everything to break right for the Republicans.

So where does that leave the overall tally? The two most likely seats to flip are both held by retiring Democrats — South Dakota and West Virginia. One can make a pretty good argument that at least the five next most likely to flip are also currently in the Democratic column. It would be surprising, at this point, if Democrats could manage to break even, even if the national tide does wind up helping them.

The best-case scenario for the Democrats right now is probably salvaging one of the seats in either South Dakota or West Virginia, and then having GOP recruiting failures doom them in the other vulnerable Democratic seats. And somehow managing to pick off one of the longshot Democratic opportunities. That’s a break-even outcome. Realistically it’s hard to see anything better.

On the other hand, it’s not hard at all to picture Republicans picking up six, seven, or even more seats — and taking back a Senate majority. But more  likely is probably a 2-5 seat Republican gain, allowing Democrats to keep their Senate majority but by only a slim margin.

Remember, in the Senate every single Senator matters. It’s not like the House, where the fact of holding the majority is far more important than the size or, usually, even the composition of that majority. So as we’ve already seen this year, it matters that Ted Cruz (and not some other Republican) won in Texas, and that Elizabeth Warren (and not some other Democrat) won in Massachusetts. And it matters that there are 55 Democrats, rather than, say, 52 or 58. And we still have a long time to go; a surprise retirement (Susan Collins?) or a primary-day surprise could suddenly move a seat into a whole new category. But right now, it’s very much shaping up as a cycle with a lot more Republican opportunities, and one which will have Democrats on the defensive all the way until next November.


And some Happy Hour reading for the holiday weekend:

1. Paul Krugman has the last word on John Boehner’s botched effort to paint Abraham Lincoln as a debt scold in sync with the contemporary Republican economic world-view. Great fun. (gs)

2. Legislation on paid sick days is the next big Democratic issue. Randy Lobasso explains.

3. Scott Walker’s new strategy for avoiding blame for Wisconsin’s sluggish economy: blame the protesters.

4. Important: how the Affordable Care Act will affect premiums. Sarah Kliff goes through the numbers. Bottom line is that there’s plenty of uncertainty, but for most people increases in raw premium costs will be more than offset by subsidies.

5. Good point from Jamelle Bouie: There are still plenty of gay rights issues to resolve, which means it will be a long time until Republicans can bury the party’s reactionary anti-gay aura.

6. How to get smart poor kids to apply to good colleges: one thing that works, from David Leonhardt.

7. Kevin Drum is good on the lingering conservative caricature of Obama as dumb, lazy and a fluke president. (gs)

8. And, sure, Jonathan Chait’s epic takedown of Liz Chaney.