After back-to-back elections filled with big promises and eventual disappointment, Republican onlookers can be forgiven for any skepticism regarding their chances of winning the Senate majority in 2014. After making significant gains in the Tea Party-fueled midterm wave, the GOP fell in 2012 by self-inflicted wounds and robust Obama turnout—leaving Republicans two seats further from their prize. But for all of the wasted potential and missed opportunities of the past two cycles, Republicans will enjoy distinct structural advantages this coming November that were lacking in years past. In short, 2014 represents the party’s best chance to seize control of the upper chamber.
  

2010 did not begin with high expectations for the GOP, and the path to 51 seats was always presumed to be a two-cycle proposition. The party was coming off of an epic beating, with a subsequent party switch yielding Democrats their first filibuster-proof supermajority in more than 30 years. What’s more, the targeted seats had been sustained by Democrats through the 2004 election in which Republicans netted four seats and achieved their high water mark in the Senate. Appointments related to Obama’s election led to rough parity in terms of seats at stake: Just two Democrat-held seats were in states won by John McCain, while Republicans were forced to play defense in five states won by Obama. However, the rise of the Tea Party, the controversial enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and the surprise election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts raised expectations considerably—to the extent that even a six-seat gain was lamented for the opportunities lost thanks to weak GOP nominees in
key states.
   

At first glance, 2012 presented a much friendlier Senate map, with Democrat seats outnumbering their Republican counterparts two to one; however, the presence of Obama and his formidable turnout operation buoyed his party’s candidates down the ticket. Despite the lopsided geography, Republicans were again put in the position of defending four seats in states won by Obama, while just five of 21 Democrat-held seats represented states won by McCain. Unfortunate gaffes by GOP nominees in Missouri and Indiana played directly into the Obama campaign narrative, costing the party two seats while compounding the challenge for Republican candidates throughout the country.

Following their setbacks in 2012, Republicans must gain six seats to win control of the Senate this fall. This time the structural advantage is clear: Democrats are playing defense in seven states won by Mitt Romney. President Obama lost six of these states in both of his campaigns, falling each time by double digits and receiving no more than 41 percent of the vote in any state. Among the six are three open seats left by retirements, while the other three feature incumbents sharing the dubious honor of casting deciding votes for the PPACA.

Meanwhile, just one Republican senator faces reelection in a blue state. Susan Collins (R-Maine) shared her state’s ballot with
then-Sen. Obama in 2008, drawing 61 percent of the vote to the president’s 57 percent. Democrats have instead pinned their hopes of pickups on potentially messy GOP primaries in Kentucky and Georgia, but those races remain decidedly second tier opportunities in strong Romney states.

After a brief bull run for Democrats amid the government shutdown, the disastrous rollout of www.healthcare.gov and the federal marketplace has lent Republicans an edge in the generic congressional ballot. The PPACA remains more unpopular than ever nationwide, and polls show must-win demographic groups are souring on the president and his party’s policies.
November remains an eternity away in political terms, but the path is clearly lit for Republicans to regain the Senate majority after years of unfulfilled hype.


Senate Races
 to Watch

SOUTH DAKOTA: Popular two-term Gov. Mike Rounds is the GOP favorite to pick up this seat, while Democrats are left with Rick Weiland, a two-time loser for the state’s at-large U.S. House seat.

WEST VIRGINIA: Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is widely expected to win this seat against Obama-aligned Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who already faces questions about the administration’s “war on coal.”

MONTANA:  Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s decision to forego this open seat tips the scale toward Rep. Steve Daines (R), while Democrats face an intense primary between the state’s current and former lieutenant governors.

ARKANSAS:  Two-term Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor, unopposed just six years ago, faces a stiff challenge from rising GOP star Rep. Tom Cotton, whose background as a Harvard-trained lawyer turned Army infantry officer gives him an edge in this rapidly reddening state.

ALASKA: Freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D) prevailed in 2008 by just 3,000 votes despite his opponent’s conviction on federal corruption charges. He will face a strong Republican opponent in Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell or former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan.

LOUISIANA:  Sen. Mary Landrieu
(D) likely will face a one-month runoff election against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R)—
a race that could decide control of
the Senate.

NORTH CAROLINA: New voting laws have narrowed Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D) margin for error as she prepares to face her likely opponent in state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R).


Liam Donovan is director of legislative affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, email donovan@abc.org or visit
 www.abc.org.