- Democrats are on defense in seven key senate races
- They are all but sure to lose three seats where Democrats are retiring
- Some Democrats privately admit it is going to be very difficult for them to keep control of the Senate
Four weeks away from the 2014 midterm elections and even some Democratic operatives struggle to imagine a scenario where they retain control of the U.S. Senate. The terrain and current momentum seem all but overwhelming and against them.
A new CNN/ORC poll out Thursday morning suggests a Republican lead over a Democratic incumbent, this time in Alaska, and does nothing to calm Democrats' nerves.
"If you put a gun to my head, I guess I'd say that we're going to lose the Senate," one Democratic consultant told me in a moment of anonymous candor.
It's not even so much that President Obama is an Ancient Mariner-esque Albatross around their necks, though he is.
"I love the guy and I don't think there's anything he could do to fix it," the Democratic operative says, "but he's a real drag. But the bigger drag is the economy overall -- even though the economy is getting better, people aren't feeling it because wages are stagnant."
The other issue is that many of the Democrats defending their seats in GOP-leaning states had a fresh new Obama in 2008 helping to sweep them into office -- and often then, just barely. The class of 2008 were a bunch of Obama babies -- and now that's working against them.
It's hard to explain to youngsters, but in 2008 then-Sen. Obama won Indiana and North Carolina and almost even won Montana and Missouri. Millions of Americans turned out to vote for him and in doing so in red states boosted Democrats like Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska.
Begich only beat then-Sen. Ted Stevens, 47.9% to 46.7% six years ago. Begich has hovered in the low 40s in recent polling; he trails his GOP opponent Dan Sullivan by six percentage points among likely voters in the CNN / ORC poll out Thursday morning.
Senate math is hard for Democrats
The basic math, for those of you not as fixated as the rest of us, is the following: The GOP needs to win at least six seats (though the number may end up being seven given the weirdness in Kansas -- more on that later.)
Republicans start off basically half way there. Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota -- where three incumbent Democrats have said farewell -- are considered easy GOP pickups, with the GOP candidates ahead in polls by double digits.
That leaves seven competitive Senate races where Democrats are playing defense: solid red states Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana; and blue-ish Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and purple-ish North Carolina. Democrats are feeling cautiously bullish about exactly two of these races, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC.
Hagan is instructive in this way, she currently polls at 44% against her GOP opponent Thom Tillis, with 40%. As Obama squeaked in a 49.9%-49.5% victory against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for North Carolina in 2008, Hagan defeated then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-NC, 52.7% to 44.2%, and North Carolina elected a Democratic governor and handed Democrats victories in eight out of 13 House races.
Four years later, North Carolinians opted for Mitt Romney, a GOP governor, and Democrats were down to four out of 13 U.S. House seats. Hagan could certainly pull out a win this November, but it won't be because she's riding a wave -- it will be because she successfully fought against it.
Here is the obligatory "to be sure" paragraph: each race is its own individual microcosm, incumbents have advantages challengers do not, four weeks is a lifetime in politics, Dewey Defeats Truman, insert cliché here. The Senate GOP Leader, Mitch McConnell, has a competitive race in Kentucky , though I know few Democrats who think he won't eke it out at the end of the day. And Kansas is a weird one, with the Democratic candidate having withdrawn, and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts facing an independent challenger who hasn't said with which party he'll caucus. Democrats are hoping if the final vote comes down to Independent Greg Orman, he'll remember that Democrats cleared the field for him. A CNN/ORC poll out Wednesday showed the race in a virtual tie with Roberts just one percentage point ahead.
The Democratic operative noted that his party was benefiting from some GOP struggles, namely the Republican party's inability to raise as much money as it had wanted to, infighting among GOP Super-PACs, and general infighting among conservatives."
But midterm elections are generally more difficult for the party that holds the White House. And opposition to Washington appears to be a motivating factor for a lot of voters.
"A lot of these races are tight right now, but this isn't the sort of environment where late-deciding voters are going to break for Democrats," the Democratic consultant said, adding that with Democrats in tight races but under 50% right now, it's tough to imagine all of them breaking in favor of the party that holds the White House.
Those Democrats include the ones fighting for their jobs in all seven of these toss-ups. Remember that the GOP only need win three of these and the most recent polling, which could clearly change between now and election day, suggests extremely close margins or a Republican advantage in all of them:
· Alaska (Republican up 50-44 in CNN / ORC poll)
· Arkansas (Republican up 45-41 in CBS / NYT / YouGov poll)
· Louisiana (Republican up 47-41 in CBS / NYT YouGov poll)
· Colorado (Democrat up 48-45 in CBS / NYT / YouGov poll)
· Iowa (42-42 draw in Loras College poll)
· New Hampshire (Democrat up 48-41 in CBS / NYT / YouGov poll)
· North Carolina (Democrat up 47-45 in USA Today / Suffolk poll)
"It's going to be bad," the consultant said. "Not 2010 bad, but bad." Even hapless House GOP candidates running against popular incumbents are proving competitive, the consultant reports. "You can see why Eric Cantor went down -- people are just so anti-Washington, and that's particularly a problem with Democrats because of ties" to the president. "People feel hopeless and think that Washington isn't doing anything."