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Eight things to watch in the eight months till Election Day

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some leading Republicans face primary challenges from the right
  • Special election in Florida will give one party bragging rights
  • Democrats face challenge in trying to hold onto the Senate

Washington (CNN) -- The first votes in the 2014 midterm election season take place Tuesday, as Texas holds the first primary contests of the year.

The voting in the Lone Star State comes eight months to the day before the Election Day in November. The big questions: Will the Republicans finally win back the Senate? Can the Democrats defy odds and retake the House? And which party will have the upper hand in gubernatorial battles?

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Here are eight things to watch in the eight months before Election Day:

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1. Primary battles: In Texas, a top House Republican faces a tea party challenge in Tuesday's primary. Grassroots conservative activist Katrina Pierson is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions, a nine-term congressman and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

Pierson has won the backing of top national groups such as the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks and influential figures on the right such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and conservative firebrand Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Despite her impressive list of endorsements, Pierson's fundraising lags far behind that of Sessions, the favorite in the race.

Sessions is one of eight GOP House leaders or committee chairs who face primary challenges this year.

Sen. John Cornyn faces a number of primary challengers from the right on Tuesday. The most well-known of the candidates is conservative Rep. Steve Stockman. But Cornyn, the No. 2 ranking Republican in the Senate, doesn't appear to face much of a threat Tuesday.

Cornyn is one of 12 Republican senators running for re-election this year, and half, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, face conservative primary challenges. While neither McConnell or Cornyn expect to face difficult primaries, some other senators, such at Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas, might face a bigger challenges.

Since the birth of the tea party movement in 2009, primary challenges from the right have produced major headlines and headaches for Republicans and hurt their chances of winning back the Senate from the Democrats in the past two election cycles.

"Republicans effectively gave away five Senate seats the last two cycles because of candidates who weren't capable of winning in November," said Brian Walsh, who was communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which provides support, advice and funding to Republican candidates, during the 2010 and 2012 cycles.

The big question is whether this year's primary challenges will have as much of an impact come November.

2. Special election: In what some see as a barometer for November's midterms, voters in a swing district in the swing state of Florida head to the polls next week in a special election to fill a vacant House seat.

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The winner of the March 11 contest in Florida's 13th Congressional District will fill out the term of Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died in October. Young, first elected to Congress in 1970, was the longest-serving Republican in the House.

The race pits Democrat Alex Sink, who served as Florida's chief financial officer and narrowly lost the 2010 gubernatorial election to Rick Scott, against David Jolly, who served as a former general counsel for Young and also worked as a lobbyist. There's also a libertarian candidate in the race, who may take votes away from Jolly, the GOP establishment pick

Republicans are attempting to make the race about Obamacare and paint Sink as an opportunist who's new to the district. Democrats attack Jolly for what they say was his work lobbying to privatize Social Security, which could play in a district with a very high percentage of seniors.

Money from outside groups has poured into this race, and overall more than $8 million has been spent to run ads in the short campaign.

The district covers most of Pinellas County and parts of St. Petersburg, and it's up for grabs: While Young captured 58% of the vote in his 2012 re-election, President Barack Obama narrowly carried the district. Obama also won it 2008, grabbing 51% of the vote.

While it's rare that special contests early in an election year give us a preview of what will actually happen in November, the party that wins next week's showdown will get brief bragging rights.

"It's rare in politics that anything other than a presidential contest is viewed as a 'must win,' but the special election in Florida's 13th District falls into that category for Democrats," wrote Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report and a leading political handicapper.

"Since most nonpartisan handicappers and analysts have for years expected this seat to go Democratic when it became open, a Republican victory in March would likely say something about the national political environment and the inclination of district voters to send a message of dissatisfaction about the President. And that possibility should worry the White House."

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3. Red or purple state Senate Democrats: Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate (53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party), but are defending 21 of the 36 seats up in November, with half of those Democratic-held seats in red or purple states.

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With Democratic-held open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia considered by most political pundits, including some top Democrats, all but gone, the spotlight shifts to Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Montana, where Democratic senators face challenging re-elections.

The party also has a fight on its hands to keep open seats in Iowa and Michigan in Democratic hands, and Democratic senators in Colorado and New Hampshire may also face tough re-elections.

While the Democrats will mostly be playing defense, they hope to go on offense in Georgia, where a wide open GOP primary could produce a controversial conservative candidate, and Kentucky, where big bucks will be spent to try and take down McConnell.

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4. Blue or purple state Republican governors: When it comes to governors' races, it's the GOP that's mostly playing defense. The party's defending 22 of the 36 seats up for grabs in November. And some of them are in states that Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, Nevada and New Mexico.

But Democrats also have some vulnerable seats to defend, in Arkansas, Colorado and Illinois. And they won't have cakewalks in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

And then there's the 2016 factor: GOP Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Democratic Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who are all considered possible White House contenders, first face re-elections this year.

5. Calling it quits: Nearly two dozen lawmakers, many of them longtime veterans of the House, have already announced they'll retire at the end of 2014 rather than run for re-election. That list includes 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Another 17 House members are leaving the chamber as they run for the Senate or other offices. Among those leaving are some top allies of House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

With primary filing deadlines in some states still to come, expect more retirement announcements ahead.

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Since the retirements have been pretty much evenly divided between the two parties, what they won't do is dramatically alter the battle for control of the House. Democrats need to pick up 17 GOP-held seats to win back control of the Republican-led chamber, a feat political handicappers say is unlikely considering the shrinking number of competitive congressional districts.

"This year's midterms aren't likely to produce much partisan change in the House, but they could produce a changing of the guard," said David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Report, a leading nonpartisan political handicapper. "The big question is whether the retirements we've seen so far foreshadow a change of leadership on either side."

6. The issues: The national health care law is the President's signature domestic achievement. The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was a major issue in 2010 and 2012 and will be so again in 2014.

While the Obamacare website suffered a disastrous rollout starting in October, things have improved. Major flaws with HealthCare.gov were addressed and enrollment has made major gains.

But the controversy over canceled policies because of Obamacare played into Republican hands. And Obama's inaccurate pledge that "If you like your insurance, you can keep it" under the new health care law is a line that has dominated GOP attack ads this cycle. Republicans have pledged to keep the campaign focus on the health care law even if it starts to gain traction with the public.

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Why?

Because midterms are smaller than presidential elections and are often all about getting out base voters, and the GOP base hates Obamacare.

While congressional Republicans focus on health care, the White House and Democrats in Congress are shining their spotlight on raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits. Both measures face difficult paths to becoming law, thanks to pushback from Republicans.

But regardless of what happens, Democrats think they have a winning issue that can deflect from the damage done by Obamacare woes. Expect a continued push by the White House, congressional Democrats, labor groups and progressive organizations to raise the federal minimum wage and proposals to boost the level in some crucial states this year, as part of the party's effort to emphasize income inequality.

"The economy is stronger than it's been in a very long time," Obama touted at a news conference at the end of last year.

By many metrics, he's right. The stock market's above 16,000, unemployment's at a five-year low, auto sales are at a seven-year high and the housing sector, which dragged the country into recession five years ago, is rebounding.

But many people just don't feel that good about things. National polling indicates most people don't feel nearly as optimistic about the economy and their personal plight.

The economy remains the top issue on the minds of voters. Economic realities, as well as perceptions, will influence voters in 2014.

7. The President -- poll numbers and fundraising: There's no denying that 2013 was a tough year for Obama. And with an approval rating hovering in the low 40s in most national opinion polls, the question is: How will he impact Democrats in November?

Midterm elections are often a referendum on a sitting president, so expect to see Obama's approval ratings in the spotlight right until the Election Day

While some Democrats facing tough re-elections in red or purple states are not inviting the President to join them out on the campaign trail, they do need his help raising money. When it comes to fundraising, Obama remains the Democratic party's top rainmaker, and he's picking up the pace this year in helping his party bring in the bucks, especially when compared with his efforts in the 2010 midterms.

8. Outside money: As it was in 2010 and 2012, outside money will continue to shape elections from groups on both sides of the aisle.

As of now, the pro-Republican groups have outspent pro-Democratic groups. The biggest spender to date is the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the deep pockets of the billionaire industrialist brothers, David and Charles Koch. The group has shelled out nearly $30 million to run ads since October, almost entirely focusing on health care, that attack Democrats and praise Republicans.

Last week, in a pep talk to Democratic party leaders, Vice President Joe Biden said the Koch Brothers' spending is one of his party's biggest concerns this year. But Biden went on to say that, "I'm still one of these guys who believes money can't buy an election when you're selling a bad set of goods."

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