The two most likely legislative land mines for Republicans to step on between now and Election Day have been defused: The government is now funded, and Congress won’t need to lift the debt ceiling between now and November. As a result, it is not clear where the kind of break that Democrats need could emerge.
The Senate’s playing field keeps getting larger and, at least so far, entirely at Democrats’ expense. Three of their seats are, to put it charitably, uphill challenges. The open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia are pretty much gone. In Montana, it’s unclear whether newly appointed Senator John Walsh is in any better position, apart from fundraising, than he was when he was just the lieutenant governor running for an open seat. Between national party committees and super PACs, the amount of money raised by the candidates and their campaigns means less than ever before. With a handful of people in each party apparently ready to spend $50 million to $100 million of their own money on behalf of their favored candidates, a lot of things that used to be important aren’t so much anymore.
Although it is getting surprisingly little attention, Democrat Carl Levin’s open seat in Michigan is a toss-up; neither of the candidates is particularly strong or well defined, but the natural advantage that a Democrat in the Motor State could be expected to have is likely offset by ugly headwinds caused by radioactive Obama and ACA numbers. The same can be said for Tom Harkin’s open seat in Iowa. In both states, the presumptive Democratic nominees have Obamacare votes to defend, but the highly problematic GOP nomination process in Iowa might well yield an exotic and unelectable contender.
Five Democratic incumbents now face tough races, Arkansas’s Mark Pryor is in the most challenging situation, followed by Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), and Mark Udall (Colorado). Udall became the latest addition to the list when GOP Representative Cory Gardner announced his candidacy Saturday. Also worth keeping a close eye on are Al Franken (Minnesota); Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), if former Senator Scott Brown runs; and Mark Warner (Virginia), who is as strong as a Democrat can be in that state but would be in trouble in the event of a meltdown. When there is a president with numbers this bad, even incumbents who might normally be OK need to be watched carefully, particularly if there is deeply unpopular policy weighing down the party’s candidates.
Many suspect that the best—or even only—chance that Democrats have of salvaging their majority is if they can pick off one or even two GOP-held seats. This would force Republicans to gross seven or even eight seats to secure the six-seat net gain needed to win the majority. The Washington conventional wisdom is that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will ultimately prove unbeatable, but there are no data to support that notion.