02:13 - Source: CNN
Inside Politics: Obama Drag?

Story highlights

Control of the Senate is the big story in November's midterm elections

Senate Democrats face a difficult task of maintaining control

Republicans are likely to keep the House

Republican success could be determined, in part, by outrage over Obamacare

Washington CNN  — 

Their approval rating is horrendous. They rarely get along or get anything done. So here’s your chance to do something about it.

With the entire House of Representatives and more than a third of the Senate up for election in November, there’s a lot at stake in these midterms.

Here’s what on the line:

Control of the Senate: That’s the big story of the year.

Republicans have their best chance of winning back the majority since they lost it in the 2006 elections.

Democrats hold a 55-45 seat majority (53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them) and could lose control of the chamber if they drop six seats.

That matters because Republicans would then likely control the House and the Senate. Government would be truly divided with President Barack Obama, a Democrat, still in the White House. Republicans would likely pass more legislation through Congress and the President would be forced to either allow GOP priorities to go through or stop them in their tracks with a veto.

Democrats face a difficult task of maintaining their Senate majority. Of the 36 Senate races this year (a third of the Senate is up for election every two years), Democrats hold 21 seats. In other words, they are forced to play major defense.

The Cook Political Report says Democrats have an extremely slim chance of keeping their seats in South Dakota and West Virginia, where the current Democratic senator in both is retiring and the states’ electorates are likely too conservative to elect a new Democrat.

So the Democrats’ defensive playbook comes down to seven races in red or purple states that they could lose: Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alaska, Michigan, Montana and Iowa.

In addition, Republicans are hopeful they have a chance to knock off Democratic incumbents in Colorado and New Hampshire. In other words, they have multiple paths to retaking the Senate.

More on the key Senate races

“Democratic control of the Senate is at considerable risk, with the party at no better than even money to retain control in November,” wrote Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, one of the top political handicappers.

But it’s not all roses for the GOP. It has a few seats to defend, too. And one of those is that of the party’s leader, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Democrats recruited a young candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running a solid campaign. She is a legitimate threat to McConnell.

And in Georgia, the retiring Saxby Chambliss has left the door open for Michelle Nunn, a Democrat with a family history in Georgia politics, who must beat one of two Republicans still running for the nomination.

Little drama in the House: Republicans currently have a strong advantage in the House: They control 234 seats compared to 201 for Democrats. What team wouldn’t love a 33-point advantage on game day?

What that means is that Democrats must pick up 17 seats to reclaim the majority they lost in the 2010 midterms. But that’s unlikely because the party that controls the White House usually loses seats in a president’s sixth year.

But only 17 seats out of 435 are rated tossups, according to a CNN analysis. That’s less than 5%. CNN estimates that another 33 could change hands, and some surely will, but the risk is a bit lower.

House races to watch

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said that is pretty standard.

“That’s close to normal for a mid-decade, non-wave election year,” he said, adding that more districts become competitive after redistricting at the start of every decade.

In the last census, Republicans dominated the redistricting game because they controlled the entities, mostly state legislatures, that are in charge of drawing new districts.

As Democratic voters tend to be clustered in urban areas and Republican voters in the suburbs and out in the country, Republicans control more districts. There are a lot more rural districts than urban. In 2012, House Democrats won 1.17 million more votes, but the GOP won 33 more seats, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report.

The role of Obamacare: For the first several months of the year while the Affordable Care Act seemed to be a rolling disaster, Republicans made it a central issue in campaign, attacking Democrats for their support of the law.

With enrollment strong and the public’s opinion of the law improving, the issue is no longer a standalone rallying cry. Though it’s still important to the GOP.

The latest CNN poll from early May found that 38% of people wanted to either replace the law or get rid of it. The results are similar to a CBS poll which found 35% of respondents said the law needs to be repealed, which is a far better billing than the 43% who felt the same way in November.

Elizabeth Wilner with the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan polling group, wrote that Republicans are starting to use the word “fix” in their campaigning, instead of “repeal.”

Obamacare will still be an issue, and one that will be used in races across the country, but it won’t be the only one. The economy, energy and even some foreign policy, including Benghazi, will enter into the campaigns.

Republicans hit a nerve with Obamacare

Wait – Obamacare isn’t an issue?

Democrats looking for something to rally around: Democrats are working to do everything possible to motivate their base. A March CBS News poll found that while 70% of Republicans are excited to vote only 58% of Democrats are. The enthusiasm gap doesn’t bode well for Democrats who are well aware that Democratic voters are less likely to vote in non-presidential election years.

Even the head of the committee tasked with electing Democrats to the House admits it. Rep. Steve Israel says Democratic candidates have a tough time in midterms.

“Well, look, there’s a tough climate, no question about it,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” in April.

While Republicans have vitriol over Obamacare and Benghazi to motivate their base, Democrats think they’ve found their go-to: equal pay and minimum wage.

Democrats seize on equal pay as midterm issue

Those are two issues that speak to voters personal pocketbooks, especially those of women and people of color – groups that are more likely to work a minimum wage job and get paid less than a white male. Oh, and two groups that vote less often in midterms.

“It’s extremely potent,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said recently. “It’s the No. 1 issue that gets single women out to vote, but it also unites men and women.”

Pollster Stan Greenberg wrote in a recent memo that 72% of 2012 voters say they are “almost certain” to vote in 2014, but only 66% of unmarried women say that.

“Among voters likely to vote in 2014, the generic ballot is tied. Among those who voted in 2012 but who are not likely to vote in 2014, Democrats hold a 16-point margin. This is a big deal,” Greenberg said.

For Democrats, intensity is paramount

Republican regrouping: The Republican Party learned from Obama’s impressive ground game during the 2008 and 2012 elections.

This will be the first opportunity for the GOP, led by the Republican National Committee, to use new data gathering techniques, technology and on-the-ground campaign volunteer recruitment to expand their base and persuade voters.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus praised those efforts during the Florida-13 special election.

Why the RNC built a year-round ground game

The RNC says it has recruited 14,000 precinct captains in targeted congressional districts and Senate and gubernatorial races around the country.

That operation in 2014 will lay the groundwork for the 2016 presidential election, spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.

The role of independents: In the CBS News poll cited above, independents are least excited about voting. Only 47% said they were compared to 70% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats.

That’s, in part, why this election is going to be “more about each side getting out their base,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that independents voting in midterm elections tend to decide who to vote for based on their feelings about the direction of the country and their approval of the President rather than on specific issues.

He said they shouldn’t be completely discounted, however, in close races, where they could play a deciding role.

The GOP fight: At the beginning of this campaign season, the big story was the internal fight within the GOP where conservative groups unhappy with establishment members worked to beat some incumbents who they think aren’t pure enough.

But the establishment is winning as the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and various tea party groups were unable to beat back well-funded Republican establishment.

While candidates backed by the tea party won a congressional primary in Texas and a Senate one in Nebraska, Republican candidates have beat back tea party challengers in other states, including in Kentucky, Idaho, North Carolina and Texas.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn easily won his primary against tea party-backed challenger Rep. Steve Stockman in March, but he spent $2.6 million in the final weeks to do it. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell beat tea party-backed Matt Bevin, but McConnell spent $10 million to do so.

A Boehner bypass? House conservatives have their own midterm message

The role of the moneyed men: Since the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision Citizen’s United in 2010, the role of individual investors in the political sphere has grown.

During the 2012 election, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent at least $98 million, according to an investigation by ProPublica.

The wealthy entrepreneurs, Charles and David Koch, spent $130 million in 2012 through their organization Americans for Prosperity, which works to defeat Democrats. They also donated money directly to candidates and political action committees as well.

It’ll be interesting to see how the high rollers play in the midterms. With no one candidate at the top of the ticket, will they be willing to spread their money around to impact multiple races or wait for 2016 to put all of their dollars in one tank?

The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is expected to spend north of $100 million dollars and we could see the most expensive Senate campaign in history, probably in Kentucky.

A wealthy former hedge fund manager, Tom Steyer, hopes to play big as well. Focusing on climate change, he pledged to spend up to $50 million of his own money and hopes to raise another $50 million.

Opening act for 2016: Let’s face it, the midterms haven’t even happened yet but the presidential race is well under way.

Potential Republican hopefuls are already spending large amounts of time in early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Is 2016 election starting earlier than 2012 did?

And on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is asked “the question” seemingly every hour.

While the midterms will determine the next two years in Washington and the President’s ability to govern, it won’t predict what could happen in the presidential race two years later.

That’s because the electorate is much different. It’s bigger. It’s more diverse.

But it could have an indirect impact on 2016 as Republicans will have an opportunity to establish a track record for the public to judge, especially if they win back the Senate.

Control of the states: Thirty-six states are electing governors this year, including California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

While the political parties want control of the state houses to implement policy priorities, whether that’s the Affordable Care Act for the Democrats or cutting taxes for Republicans, the larger picture is always in view.

As multiple Republican governors up for election this year are considering a presidential run, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, Democrats think that if they lose, it will make it more difficult for them to run for higher office in 2016.

Republicans hope their ground game to try and elect Republican governors pays off for 2016 by creating an infrastructure to help elect a Republican to the White House.

Gubernatorial races to watch

Seven key times and dates in the seven months leading up to the midterms

CNN’s Paul Steinhauser, Peter Hamby and John King contributed to this report.