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With less than a year to go until the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans are feeling bullish about their chances of winning a majority in the U.S. Senate. The GOP needs to gain a net of six seats in order to claim the majority, and with 21 Democratic seats in play — including seven in states that Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential election — there are ample opportunities for Republicans to grow their caucus.
Open seats in South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia — where incumbent Democrats Tim Johnson, Max Baucus, and Jay Rockefeller all chose to retire — are likely to transfer to Republican hands in the upcoming elections. That would leave the GOP needing three more victories for the majority — assuming, of course, that they don’t lose any seats of their own.
In other words, control of the upper chamber of Congress will probably come down to just a handful of elections across the country. Here are the six races that are likely to decide which party controls the U.S. Senate:
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Incumbent senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) will face the greatest electoral challenge of her career in 2014, when she faces U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Tea Party-backed former Air Force officer Rob Maness in Louisana’s nonpartisan “jungle primary.”
Early on, the race has focused on the Affordable Care Act, and despite Landrieu’s spirited efforts to paint herself as a champion for fixing the law’s implementation, the nonstop attacks linking her to the law (and to the president) have taken a clear toll on Landrieu’s approval ratings.
The most recent poll of the race, from November, found Landrieu leading Cassidy 41 to 34 percent, with 10 percent favoring Maness. If Landrieu fails to crack 50 percent in the November 4 primary, however, she would face the second-place finisher in a December 6 runoff; given that the electorate would likely be much smaller a month after Election Day, and the likelihood that Cassidy or Maness would consolidate Republican support in deep-red Louisiana, a runoff would make it significantly harder for Landrieu to win a fourth term.
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Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC), who was elected to Congress by a surprisingly comfortable 9 percent margin in 2008, is almost certain to face a closer election in 2014. Since Hagan’s election, Republicans have captured both chambers of the North Carolina legislature, and the governorship — and now they have their sights set on the state’s top elected Democrat.
The latest poll of the race finds Hagan trailing each of her Republican opponents by 1 or 2 percent (within the margin of error).
Thom Tillis, speaker of North Carolina’s controversial General Assembly, is the favorite to capture the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s May 6 primary. Hagan could catch a break if Tillis is defeated in the primary by Greg Brannon, a Tea Party-inclined obstetrician with a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.
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Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), who has long been considered one of most vulnerable incumbents in the country, finds himself locked in an already nasty contest with U.S. Representative Tom Cotton (R-AR). Sensing his vulnerability, Pryor has already been on the air for months with ads promoting himself as a gun-toting, God-fearing “true” Arkansan, and trashing Cotton as an enemy of Medicare and Social Security.
There’s reason to believe that the race will turn even more negative in the coming months; Cotton has a history of attracting controversy, which Pryor will certainly look to turn against him.
For his part, Cotton — who spent less than two years in the House before deciding to pursue a move to the Senate — is relentlessly attempting to tie Pryor to President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Arkansas.
So far, neither candidate has taken a clear advantage; the Real Clear Politics polling average of the race finds it a virtual toss-up, with Cotton ahead by 0.6 percent.
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Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has long been viewed as a top Republican target due to his up-and-down approval ratings, and the fact that he represents a state that Mitt Romney won by 14 points in the 2012 presidential election.
So far, however, Begich has proven to be among the most resilient Democratic incumbents; he has led Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, his likely Republican opponent, in every public poll of the race (the most recent, from Hays Research Group in August, found Begich up 11 percent).
There’s still plenty of time for Treadwell to turn things around in deep-red Alaska, however. Additionally, Joe Miller — a Tea Party-backed candidate who won the Republican nomination in 2010 before losing to a write-in campaign from incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski — is challenging Treadwell for the Republican nomination. If he succeeds — or even pushes Treadwell significantly to the right — it would greatly improve Begich’s chances of being re-elected.
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Although the 2014 electoral map generally favors Republicans, there are a few opportunities for Democrats to steal Republican seats. First and foremost among them is Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — who is the least popular senator in America, according to Public Policy Polling — is facing the most difficult re-election battle of his 30-year political career.
McConnell will face Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in the May 20 Republican primary; although polls find McConnell leading Bevin by double digits, his efforts to prevent Bevin from outflanking him from the right may endanger him him the general election.
If McConnell does defeat Bevin, he will face Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s well-funded, politically vicious Secretary of State. Early polling of the race finds McConnell with a very narrow lead — but those numbers are subject to rapid change, given that both Democrats and Republicans will pour money and resources into what will likely be the highest-profile campaign of the 2014 cycle.
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The other Republican seat that may well end up in Democratic hands is in Georgia, where incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss chose not to seek re-election. Presumptive Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, the former CEO of the Points of Light charity and the daughter of former sentator Sam Nunn, has used a strong campaign launch and impressive fundraising to establish herself as a serious contender in the general election.
Meanwhile, the Republican primary — which features U.S. representatives Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston, along with former secretary of state Karen Handel — has become a mad dash to the right, creating a very real possibility that the eventual winner ends up unelectable. Either Broun (who has described the Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell“), Gingrey (who believes Todd Akin was “partially right” about “legitimate rape”), Kingston (who has argued that children from poor families be made to sweep floors to earn lunch), or Handel (who was forced to resign in disgrace from Susan G. Komen for the Cure after using the charity to attack Planned Parenthood) could easily become the next Akin or Sharron Angle.
Early polling of the race confirms the danger for the GOP; according to an August Public Policy Polling survey, the race begins as a toss-up, despite Georgia’s reliably Republican bent.