GOP targets blue states in battle for Senate
By: James Hohmann
December 1, 2013 04:56 PM EST
In 2012, Democrats snagged Senate seats from Republicans in states where the GOP should have prevailed with relative ease.
In 2014, Republicans want to show they can play that game, too.
The GOP could conceivably capture the Senate by winning in seven states currently represented by Democrats but that Mitt Romney carried. But running the table in those states is a very tall task, party strategists freely acknowledge, so they’re working to expand the map of competitive races to states like Iowa, Michigan, Colorado and several others.
If Republicans can mount strong campaigns in purple and even some blue states, it could allow them to capitalize on an anti-Obamacare electoral wave if one forms — or, short of that, force Democrats to spend precious dollars they’d rather devote to the true battleground races.
Here’s a look at seven states carried by Barack Obama where national Republicans have the best hopes of an upset, ranked in order from most to least likely. Democrats control 55 seats to Republicans’ 45, so the GOP needs a net pickup of six seats.
Michigan: Settling on Land
Operatives at the National Republican Senatorial Committee are most hopeful about capitalizing on the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. The field quickly cleared for Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, who represents the Detroit suburbs and narrowly lost a 2002 race for attorney general.
GOP leaders have begun rallying behind former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land after a handful of House members, including Mike Rogers and Dave Camp, passed. Thirteen senators co-hosted a fundraiser for her last week. She raised $1 million last quarter and put in another $1 million of her own money.
Part of the hope is that Gov. Rick Snyder, up for reelection, could be strong at the top of the ticket and Land might ride his coattails.
Land is still finding her sea legs as a candidate. She took heat for somewhat contradictory comments on repealing Obamacare last week and has not done many public events. The president carried Romney’s home state by 9 percentage points last year.
Iowa: A GOP Free-for-All
The Hawkeye State seemed like a natural pickup opportunity when Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement early this year. But the strongest potential Republican candidates, such as Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, passed while Democrats quickly coalesced behind Rep. Bruce Braley.
Whoever emerges from a crowded GOP field will most likely not be tied to Washington the way Braley is. That could allow the GOP standard-bearer to run as an outsider in a state Obama carried by 6 points.
The concern among Republicans is that if no candidate breaks 35 percent in a crowded primary, the nominee will be picked by activists at a summer convention. Conventions have a history of selecting more-conservative nominees — sometimes too conservative for general election voters.
The governor, Terry Branstad, is officially neutral but is thought to favor state Sen. Joni Ernst, a close friend of Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. With the help of consultant Todd Harris, she has become a stronger candidate since the spring but has never faced scrutiny outside her solid-red legislative district.
Former energy executive Mark Jacobs has the ability to self-fund, but he’s also a first-time candidate. The field includes some conservative dark horses. Democrats say that whoever emerges will have run too far to the right to shore up the base and won’t be well-known statewide.
New Hampshire: Waiting for Brown
Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator who lost to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, continues to flirt with challenging freshman Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who won with only 52 percent in 2008.
The Obamacare rollout and internal polling showing the incumbent with an approval rating below 50 percent have caused Brown in recent weeks to more seriously consider jumping in. NRSC leaders are providing plenty of encouragement.
He is already well-known in the Granite State because the majority of residents get their news from the Boston media market. He would be able to raise lots of money, and his moderate brand could play better in the purple state than next door in the deep-blue Bay State. Notably, Brown just sold his house in Massachusetts and has been spending a lot more time in New Hampshire.
If Brown doesn’t run, and most local operatives don’t believe he will, Shaheen will probably coast to reelection. If Brown were to run, he would have to fend off attacks that he is a Wall Street-friendly carpetbagger.
Minnesota: Investor Targets Franken
Al Franken won his seat in 2008 after a contentious recount with only 42 percent. Many conservatives, who still believe the election was stolen, promised revenge. Franken, a former “Saturday Night Live” comedian, has been a consistent liberal vote in a purple state.
The strongest potential candidates, Rep. Erik Paulsen and former Sen. Norm Coleman, passed on the chance to challenge him early this year. But Obama’s sagging popularity means Franken remains vulnerable.
National Republicans are bullish about wealthy finance executive Mike McFadden, who is running for the first time. If he doesn’t lurch right to win the nomination, and presents himself as a serious alternative, Minnesota could become one of the more expensive races of the cycle. Democrats say McFadden’s inexperience has shown and he’s not ready for prime time.
Colorado: Buck Tries Again
A Quinnipiac survey released last week put freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s approval rating at just 44 percent, with 47 percent saying the Democrat does not deserve to be reelected. The question is whether Republicans can capitalize.
The current GOP front-runner is Ken Buck, who blew a winnable race in 2010 with a series of offensive gaffes. He successfully recovered from lymphoma cancer, which gives him a compelling personal story to tell, and he’s trying to avoid the kind of self-inflicted wounds that sank his last campaign.
Another GOP candidate is state Sen. Owen Hill, who has the endorsement of former Rep. Ron Paul but was criticized in the press this month after joking that Obama was born in Kenya.
If Buck can avoid the mistakes of his previous campaign, and voters are in a throw-the-bums-out mood, this could become a dogfight.
Oregon: A Neurosurgeon Runs
Jeff Merkley, who defeated Sen. Gordon Smith with a plurality in 2008, will be tough to beat. He has strong numbers, and the state has become bluer (Obama won by 12 points).
But Republicans are high on Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from the Portland area who recently got into the race and bills herself as a moderate. She is a past president of the Oregon Medical Association and is expected to be a capable fundraiser, allowing her to make a go of it.
Democrats note, however, that she’s a first-time candidate who must still win a GOP primary that is likely to force her to the right. Even in 2010, a banner Republican year, a top GOP recruit for governor who ran a strong campaign came up short.
Hawaii: Two Top Dems Do Battle
The Aloha State is a real long shot, but Republicans hope to capitalize on the nastiest Democratic Senate primary in the country. Brian Schatz, appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie a year ago after the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, is facing off with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who has the backing of Inouye’s widow.
Republican former Rep. Charles Djou is likely to get in after the holidays, sources say. He won a three-way special U.S. House election in 2010 but lost the general election that fall.
Democrats note that the GOP got their dream recruit in 2012, former Gov. Linda Lingle, and she was still crushed in the president’s home state. They scoff at the idea that Djou could make it a real contest.