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10 Moments That Won Or Lost Senate Control

By Kyle Trygstad and Alexis Levinson, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The 2014 battle for the Senate has featured a few candidate bumbles and some colorful characters.

So far, it’s lacked any cycle-defining gaffes — “Todd Akin moments” — but there are still a few days to go until Election Day and potentially two runoffs extending things into early next year.

Every election cycle provides noteworthy events or moments in time that, in hindsight, proved to be pivot points in the outcome. Roll Call has identified ten such instances that helped define this cycle’s Senate landscape.

In 2012, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe’s (R-ME) last-minute retirement began to alter the conventional wisdom that Republicans were likely headed for the majority. Months later, comments about rape by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock sealed the deal for Democrats.

Now, once again, the majority is up for grabs: Republicans have pushed the fight into purple states, while Democrats are holding out hope the party can hang on.

Here are ten moments that helped get us here, in chronological order:

Hollywood star declines McConnell challenge (March 27, 2013)

There is little doubt an Ashley Judd-Mitch McConnell race would have garnered plenty of attention, but it’s unlikely the actress could have put up as strong a fight against the Senate minority leader as has Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Although McConnell remains favored in the Kentucky race, Grimes has pushed the Republican in one of the most expensive races of the cycle. Two weeks after Judd announced in a series of tweets that she wouldn’t run, a bizarre story unfolded from a Mother Jones report on a secret recording of a McConnell campaign meeting where opposition research on Judd had been discussed. Lundergan Grimes jumped in the race three months later.

Herseth Sandlin decides not to run (May 13, 2013)

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s decision not to run for Senate in South Dakota all but ended any hopes Democrats had of holding the seat. The Republican-leaning state would have been a tough race for Democrats in the best-case scenario, but with Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) retiring, there was little shot without a top recruit, such as Herseth Sandlin.

Her decision to pass, which came shortly after the senator’s son made clear he would not pursue the seat, left Democrats without a strong candidate to contest the seat.

There was a brief ray of light for Democrats in early October, when poll numbers showed Democratic nominee Rick Weiland and independent Larry Pressler closing on Republican nominee Mike Rounds. Democrats dropped $1 million into the race to capitalize on that, but Republicans matched them, and this race has slid back into the Republican column.

Schweitzer shocks Democrats (July 13, 2013)

Heading into the state Democratic Party convention, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was widely expected to announce he would seek the seat of retiring Sen. Max Baucus. But on a Saturday morning in the middle of the confab, Schweitzer declared he would not run, leaving Democrats in a lurch and giving Republicans the upper hand.

Had he run, most or all of the events that followed would never have happened: Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh entered the race, GOP Rep. Steve Daines entered the race, Baucus resigned, the governor appointed Walsh to the seat, The New York Times uncovered extensive plagiarism by Walsh in a graduate school paper, Walsh dropped out of the race.

Gardner in, Buck out (Feb. 26, 2014)

When we look back on the 2014 midterms, there may be no more pivotal moment than the day in late February when Republicans pulled off a smooth candidate swap in Colorado between the 4th District and Senate races. National Republicans worked for months to recruit Rep. Cory Gardner, who represented a safe seat, to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who was headed for a likely victory over Republican Ken Buck. But Buck, back after losing a winnable race against Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010, agreed to run for Gardner’s seat, clearing a path for Gardner and putting Colorado in jeopardy for Democrats.

Brown announces preparations for New Hampshire Senate bid (March 14, 2014)

The 2014 Senate map always looked good for Republicans. Between the Democratic retirements and the Democrats facing re-election — most of them in Republican-leaning states — the GOP had the potential to pick up at least a handful of seats. But former Sen. Scott P. Brown’s decision to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) put the Granite State on the map for Republicans and fueled the narrative of just how good a year this could be for the party. And though Shaheen still has the edge, New Hampshire could be the bellwether for a Republican wave: If Brown wins, it’s going to be a good night for the GOP.

Hog castration and farmers hit the air waves (March 25, 2014)

This fateful day set the course for the rest of the Iowa Senate race, helping move what had been a lower-tier race directly onto the competitive playing field.

Joni Ernst, then one of five Republicans vying for the nomination, released an ad about her experience castrating hogs. (Technically, the ad was released on March 24, but most publications wrote about it the next morning.) The ad went viral, catapulted Ernst to national recognition and helped her win the nomination by an overwhelming margin. She avoided the convention Democrats had hoped for and received a significant boost in fundraising.

On the same day, America Rising released video of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley denigrating Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Republicans seized on the comment, which Braley quickly apologized for, to define the congressman as elitist and out of touch — a theme that has carried through the entire race.

Tillis shows up to the State House to preside as speaker (May 14, 2014)

Republicans are scrambling to push Thom Tillis over the edge in the race to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). Many Republicans privately attribute that state of affairs to Tillis’ decision not to step down as speaker of the state House when he won the nomination. One week after the primary, Tillis reported to Raleigh to preside over the “short session” of the general assembly. When he emerged three months later, after the contentious session finally came to a close, a poor second-quarter fundraising haul and a barrage of Democratic ads had him back on his heels.

Cochran wins the Republican runoff (June 24, 2014)

His challenger was still contesting the result until last week, but Sen. Thad Cochran pulled off a miracle by defeating Tea Party-backed Chris McDaniel in a runoff after finishing behind him in the primary.

Cochran’s supporters weren’t as engaged, but his campaign and key allies were able to expand the electorate — which could include anyone who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary — and increase the number of anti-McDaniel voters.

Cochran’s victory wiped the state off the map for national Democrats, who, with former Rep. Travis Childers as their nominee, would have added it to the party’s nearly barren plank of offensive opportunities had McDaniel prevailed.

Democratic nominee drops out of the Kansas Senate race (Sept. 3, 2014)

Sen. Pat Roberts did not have as easy a path to re-election as he had anticipated. But in a state as Republican-leaning as Kansas, all of that was supposed to be over after the primary.

Then Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee for Senate, dropped out, leaving Roberts in a one-on-one race with independent businessman Greg Orman. Unlike Taylor, Orman had done well fundraising, was airing television ads, and polled ahead of Roberts in a head-to-head match up. Suddenly, Republicans had to scramble to save the unprepared incumbent — and their shot at gaining the six seats they need for a Senate majority.

Perdue is proud of outsourcing record (Oct. 6, 2014)

As a first-time candidate, former corporate CEO David Perdue took an on-the-job lesson in political crisis communications one month before the general election. At a campaign stop in early October, the Republican, who faces Democrat Michelle Nunn in the Georgia Senate race, was asked about a recent report that he’d professed to outsourcing jobs most of his career. “Defend it? I’m proud of it,” Perdue said.

The Nunn campaign would go on to cut three TV ads on the issue within a week, Nunn took small leads in two public polls, and outside money began flowing in from both parties, as the race — which could go to a Jan. 6 runoff — emerged as a potential majority decider.

Roll Call’s 10 Most Vulnerable Senators

By Kyle Trygstad and Alexis Levinson, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — Montana’s appointed Sen. John Walsh was by far the most endangered incumbent in the chamber in early August, but his decision to not seek a full term has opened the top slot to a couple other worthy contenders.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) is still in a perilous political position, but Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has leapfrogged him on the list to become the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent.

The Democrat is pushing hard to eclipse 50 percent on Nov. 4, the day of Louisiana’s jungle primary and possibly Landrieu’s best opportunity for re-election. She will undoubtedly get close. But if Landrieu doesn’t win a majority of the vote against a few GOP challengers, she will likely face Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), in the Dec. 6 runoff.

If that happens, all bets are off, and Landrieu’s viability may depend on which party prevailed on Election Day.

With the elections just two months away, Democratic incumbents overall have run strong-enough campaigns to ensure the fight for the Senate majority remains a tossup — despite a playing field tilted heavily in the GOP’s direction.

Republicans, who need a net gain of six seats to take control of the chamber, are expected to get halfway there by picking up the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. The open-seat opportunities don’t stop there, but the GOP will likely need to defeat at least two sitting senators to win the majority.

They have several to choose from.
The 10 most vulnerable senators:

1. Mary L. Landrieu (D-LA)

No incumbent faces a more complicated path to re-election than Landrieu, thanks to the state’s unique voting process and calendar. With a challenging national climate and a strong GOP challenger in Cassidy, Republicans may finally defeat the senator who has won some tough races before.

2. Mark Pryor (D-AR)

Pryor is surprising people in both parties and is in far better shape at this point than some expected a year ago. But he remains a top target of national Republicans, who believe Rep. Tom Cotton will ultimately win over the GOP voters who have supported Pryor in the past.

3. Mark Begich (D-AK)

The Democrat running arguably the best campaign also happens to be in possibly the most challenging state for the party. Begich and his Democratic backers have been hammering Republican Dan Sullivan for months, long before he finally emerged with the nomination Aug. 19.

4. Kay Hagan (D-NC)

Hagan is a top target for Republicans, but circumstances have been good to her. Republican Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, had to put his candidacy on the back burner for the past several months when the legislature’s “short session” ended up not so short. He only became a full-time candidate last week, when the House finally wrapped up.

5. Mark Udall (D-CO)

Udall has a strong opponent in Rep. Cory Gardner, and Colorado is a solidly purple state that could go either way. Democrats are hoping their 2010 playbook, which got Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet elected in a Republican wave year, will be as successful the second time around.

6. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

If rankings went by polling alone, McConnell might be higher on this list. He faces a legitimate challenge in Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, a rock star fundraiser who makes the party optimistic. Grimes needs to top the 47 percent McConnell’s previous opponent received in 2008, but that’s not easy in a midterm cycle with an unpopular Democratic president.

7. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)

Shaheen is well-liked and remains the clear favorite, but a single poll in mid-August showing a 2-point race caused an uproar of speculation. It’s likely not that close, but Republicans hope former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown will begin to close the gap after the Sept. 9 primary.

8. Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

With a solid lead in the polls and large financial advantage, Merkley doesn’t appear to be in much danger. But Republican Monica Wehby is getting some much-needed help from the Koch brothers on the airwaves and Merkley’s poll numbers, while strong, don’t match Al Franken’s, pushing the Oregon senator up one spot on this list.

9. Al Frankenn (D-MN)

Franken is a strong fundraiser in a solidly blue state. There’s a path for Republicans to potentially make this race competitive, but so far, GOP nominee Mike McFadden hasn’t made it happen.

10. Mark Warner (D-VA)

It would take a Republican wave election to oust Warner, a popular former governor with a massive cash advantage over his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie. He joins this list largely for lack of another option.

Photo via WikiCommons

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