The first in a two-part series.
The summer has been a difficult one for Democrats hoping to hold on to their majority in the U.S. Senate this fall.
Their incumbent in Montana exited the midterms after being tarnished by a serious plagiarism incident. A race in Iowa that wasn’t supposed to be a top battleground has tightened and their candidate’s stumbles have attracted national attention. Colorado, where Democrats have been on a winning streak over the past several years, is now hosting one of the most competitive contests in the country.
Meanwhile, establishment Republicans got their favored pick at the conclusion of Alaska’s primary -- and in a handful of other states, for that matter. And a new and surprising poll in New Hampshire last week threatened to put Democrats on their toes.
This all comes as Democratic seats in West Virginia and South Dakota increasingly look lost, meaning that unless they can pick up one of two competitive GOP-held seats, the party in power appears dangerously close to ceding its majority.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Democrats. A silver lining, party operatives say, has been there all along. What the party has going for it are strong, battle-tested incumbents. And that advantage is holding up -- so far.
“Republicans have a terrible record of beating incumbent Democratic senators, going back to their last good year in this category, 1980,” wrote Larry Sabato and his “Crystal Ball” colleagues this week. “There is no obvious way for the GOP to gain the six seats necessary for control without taking down some incumbent Democrats, a task at which Republicans have struggled -- they haven’t beaten more than two Democratic Senate incumbents since that huge 1980 landslide.”
Democratic senators, especially those in red states won by Mitt Romney, are certainly vulnerable. The unfavorable political climate has been well noted, and President Obama’s drag on candidates hasn’t eased (some are still reluctant to be seen with him). But several Democratic incumbents are either leading or within the margin of error, according to polls. With the exception of Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, no Republican challenger has pulled into a significant lead in Democratic-held states.
After Labor Day weekend, voters will begin to tune in in earnest to the congressional races in their states and districts and the ad wars will heat up. Contests will surely tighten, and both Democrats and Republicans expect close races up until Election Day. But Democrats say they feel confident in their incumbents’ abilities, so far, to hold up against national headwinds.
Democrats note that at this point in 2010, a GOP wave was already coming and much hope was lost. “Now, the Republican brand is worse than it’s ever been, so even in red states where we should be losing, we’re not,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It speaks to the strength of our incumbents and their brands.”
In Alaska, Mark Begich is leading Republican Dan Sullivan -- who won the state’s GOP primary last week -- by 4.6 percentage points, according to the RCP average. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen leads Scott Brown by 6.6 points, even with that recent poll showing the Republican closing the gap. And in Louisiana, Mary Landrieu is leading the Republican field by 13.8 points.
Louisiana has a jungle primary, meaning that everyone runs together on Nov. 4. If no candidate breaks 50 percent -- and at this point, Landrieu is averaging around 40 percent -- the top two enter into a runoff (set for Dec. 6, if needed). Landrieu has a long history of winning challenging races. The runoff figures to be close, but the outcome will depend on which Republican candidate emerges. Conservative challenger Rob Maness could pose problems for the party, which is backing Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Though Begich is also leading, the general election race has just begun. The incumbent has been on the airwaves longer than Sullivan, however, with positive, biography-based ads touting his family connections to Alaska.
In New Hampshire, the general election has not yet officially taken off. The Republican primary doesn’t take place until Sept. 9.
And Democrats are not just playing defense. Party operatives point to competitive Republican-held seats in Kentucky and Georgia as a way to help stem the GOP tide. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is running just three points ahead of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, a political newcomer whose campaign revolves almost solely around unseating the powerful and longtime Republican incumbent. Grimes’ challenge is an uphill one, but her presence forces McConnell, the ultimate campaign strategist, to spend vast sums of money and time.
In Georgia, businessman David Perdue leads Democrat Michelle Nunn, but there, too, the margin is a narrow one -- 4.2 points in the RCP average. The race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is rated a tossup, and Democrats hope the state’s changing demographics work in their favor. (However, Nunn’s campaign attracted some negative attention recently for the leak of a memo that candidly outlined her vulnerabilities.)
Like other Democrats this cycle, Nunn is running on her family legacy (her father was a popular senator). She and Democrats in the state are working to bring down Perdue’s numbers by focusing on his business practices and by painting him as a partisan. Both candidates are considered political newcomers and will continue to be well financed. The race is certainly a challenge for Democrats, and the absence of a presidential election makes strong turnout among key constituencies difficult to achieve. But Democrats point to the NRSC’s recent ad buy in the state as evidence of its competitiveness.
Democrats believe that if they can take one of these two Republican seats, they will have blocked the GOP’s path to the majority. The party also sees races possibly turning their way in North Carolina -- where they hope the unpopularity of the state legislature will galvanize Democratic voters and sink House Speaker Thom Tillis -- and in Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor is leading in Democratic internal polls and running an ad in defense of the Affordable Care Act. (Republican Rep. Tom Cotton leads by three percentage points in the RCP average.) And in places like Iowa and Colorado, Democrats see opportunities to drive up their opponents’ negative numbers.
Strong GOP challengers, the prospect of low turnout and the national climate present serious challenges for Democrats. While analysts don’t predict a GOP wave election this year -- yet -- there is still little room for error on the Democratic side with so many of their seats in play.
Tomorrow: The case for Republicans winning the Senate majority.
Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.
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