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In one of the closest Senate campaigns of the 2008 election, then Anchorage Mayor Peter Begich (D) rode a sterling surname to a razor-thin margin of victory over a scandal-tarred incumbent. The freshman senator’s late father was former U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, a popular Democrat who disappeared decades ago in a tragic plane crash.This pedigree, combined with his time at the helm of Alaska’s largest city, was enough to pit him in a heated battle with legendary GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, but the incumbent’s conviction on felony corruption charges just eight days before voters headed to the polls proved to be the difference. While Stevens’ case was later overturned, citing misconduct by federal prosecutors, the election results stood—with a margin of less than 4,000 votes handing Begich the victory.

Begich has earned a reputation as a hardworking senator and remains personally popular, but is nonetheless fighting an uphill battle in a deeply conservative state with an abiding distaste for President Obama. He’ll be forced to defend a six-year record as
a foot soldier in Harry Reid’s Senate, including casting the decisive 60th vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Democrats will attempt to make the race about GOP nominee and former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, but the true wild card will be the unpredictable Alaska electorate and its penchant for third-party spoilers. Expect this race to go down to the wire and factor heavily into Senate control. Bottom line: toss-up.


As with the departure of Sen. Carl Levin (D) in Michigan, the retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin (D) after nearly four decades in Congress created another open seat opportunity in the nominally blue-to-purple state of Iowa. While Republicans coalesced around consensus recruits or primary favorites in other states, Iowa’s unsettled field kept the race on the back burner among national pundits. Democrats, meanwhile, immediately tapped four-term Rep. Bruce Braley—giving him 16 months to stockpile cash and build statewide name recognition. This advantage was effectively squandered in March, when video surfaced of Braley taking an elitist swipe at his state’s senior senator to a group of Texas trial lawyers. Support his candidacy, Braley warned, “or you might have a farmer from Iowa… serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.” If insulting Chuck Grassley, an Iowa political icon, could be considered a political misdemeanor, then sneering at his farming background in a state synonymous with heartland agriculture is a felony offense. As Braley’s candidacy stalled, Republicans rallied around a compelling candidate in state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Harley-riding, pistol-packing Iraq War veteran who has cheekily touted her childhood farm experience castrating hogs as proof of her ability to “cut pork” in Washington, D.C. Braley’s misstep and Ernst’s subsequent surge have catapulted this race from afterthought to high-stakes dogfight, and whichever party wins this seat will likely seal control of the Senate. Bottom line: toss-up.

West Virginia

With the retirement of Standard Oil heir Jay Rockefeller after three decades in the Senate, Republicans have been handed a prime pickup opportunity in West Virginia. Once a veritable Democratic fiefdom, the Mountain State has tacked sharply to the right at the federal level, hastened in recent years by the shifting dynamics of coal country politics. The GOP scored its top candidate in Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito, who appears poised to become the state’s first elected Republican senator in more than 65 years. Capito has served in the House since 2001, making her just the second West Virginia Republican to win re-election since the Truman era (the first being her father, former congressman and three-term Gov. Arch Moore). Democrats have recruited a respectable challenger in Natalie Tennant, who was elected Secretary of State in 2008. Tennant’s uphill path grew steeper with the Obama administration’s release of controversial new limits on power plant carbon emissions. Republicans will use the onerous regulations to tie Tennant to President Obama, whose average approval rating in 2013 was nearly 25 percent. Barring any surprising developments, Democratic fortunes in West Virginia appear to be the first casualty in what GOP leaders have branded President Obama’s “war on coal.” Bottom line: likely R; GOP pickup.

North Carolina
Long a GOP presidential stronghold, North Carolina turned decidedly purple in 2008, as voters narrowly supported Barack Obama while handing then-state Sen. Kay Hagan a victory over Elizabeth Dole. The Tarheel state’s potential was well-known to national Democrats, with its built-in demographic base ripened by decades of immigration and economic development, but an unprecedented Obama turnout delivered the state ahead of schedule. However, the last two election cycles have seen the pendulum swing hard and fast in the opposite direction. Since 2010, North Carolinians have voted in strong GOP congressional and legislative majorities, elected a Republican governor and switched their allegiance from President Obama to Mitt Romney. With full control of Raleigh, Republicans quickly went to work enacting a conservative agenda—passing tax cuts, project labor agreement reform and voter ID, among other key measures. The steward of these reforms, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, has emerged as the GOP nominee to take on Sen. Hagan in November. Whereas Tillis must unite his party after a divisive primary campaign, Hagan faces the dual challenge of defending her decisive vote for the health care law while increasing abysmal midterm turnout among key Democrat voter groups. Hagan’s hopes may be dashed by new restrictions on early voting, but Tillis’ role in passing the changes will be used to fire up her base. Bottom line: toss-up.

Deep red Louisiana—where President Obama has never garnered more than 40 percent of the vote— is another state Senate Democrats hope to ride a familiar family name, perceived independence from the national party and internal GOP divisions to an otherwise unlikely victory. Incumbent Mary Landrieu, daughter and sister of popular New Orleans mayors, has won each of her three terms by narrow margins, benefiting from a combination of presidential coattails, weak opposition and an enormous Democrat turnout edge. However, Landrieu will enjoy none of these advantages in 2014. Not only will this midterm election feature an unpopular president, but Obama’s tremendous strength in New Orleans has obscured the city’s diminished post-Katrina voter base. What’s more, Landrieu has drawn the most formidable opponent of her career in third-term Congressman Bill Cassidy. Landrieu surely will use her new post as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to endear herself to the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, but she is fighting an uphill battle. The state’s unique “jungle primary” presumably will set up a one-month Landrieu-Cassidy runoff in the wake of the November election. At this rate, it would not be surprising for the Dec. 6 election to determine control of the Senate. For the incumbent Landrieu, the prospect of a low-turnout, statewide referendum on the leadership of Harry Reid and Barack Obama is a perilous situation. Bottom line: toss-up.

Of this election cycle’s dozen or so competitive Senate campaigns, no race has moved up the radar more swiftly and unexpectedly than the open seat in Michigan. Although Republicans enjoyed a clean sweep of state government in the tea-tinged midterm election of 2010, the seat was not thought to be in play until the retirement of six-term Sen. Carl Levin (D). Democrats quickly coalesced around Gary Peters, a third-term congressman from the Detroit suburbs, while Republicans rallied behind former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Early polling indicated a potentially competitive matchup, but it was Land’s eye-popping fundraising numbers that truly put the race on the map. She repeatedly outraised the sitting House member in quarterly fundraising, easily eclipsing Peters in cash on hand. Land retains solid name recognition thanks to her eight years as secretary of state,has the advantage of sharing the ticket with incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder, and perhaps most importantly has no ties to Washington, D.C. Peters, on the other hand, must account for his vote in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which remains deeply unpopular even in traditionally blue Michigan. While the political gravity of the state will keep the race close through November, Michigan may well decide the fate of the Senate, with Land in a strong position to hand Republicans their long-coveted majority. Bottom line: toss-up.

Once the most reliable GOP stronghold in the Rockies, Colorado has trended blue in recent years due to decades of immigration and economic development changing the face of the electorate. President Obama claimed the state’s nine electoral votes in both of his campaigns, and Republicans have not won a senatorial or gubernatorial race there since 2002. This trend was poised to continue through 2014, as incumbent Sen. Mark Udall coasted through much his first term with high favorability and little opposition, feeling confident enough to cast a vote in favor of ill-fated gun control legislation. The federal debate mirrored a successful state-level effort that sparked a backlash among Second Amendment activists, ultimately leading to the ouster of two key Democrat lawmakers. The successful recall effort not only elected Republicans on deep blue turf, but also may wake a sleeping giant in the conservative grassroots. With the recent decision of rising star Cory Gardner to leave his U.S. House seat to run statewide, Republicans now have a top-tier challenger—plus a party registration advantage of nearly 40,000 active voters. With job approval and re-election numbers in the low 40s, Udall’s eroded popularity may not prove terminal, but it makes this an excellent opportunity for a GOP pickup. Bottom line: toss-up.

Democrats have had the Montana GOP’s number of late, winning all five Big Sky senate campaigns and gubernatorial races since 2006. Despite the state’s reddish hue, this year’s contest did not become a top target until the unexpected retirement of six-term Sen. Max Baucus (D), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Baucus’ departure put the open seat nominally in play, but it was the surprise decision of popular two term former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) to forego the race that vaulted Montana toward the top of the list of GOP opportunities. Without the fiery populist to clear the field, Democrats were left with a contested primary between the sitting lieutenant governor and his immediate predecessor, while Republicans quickly rallied behind freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Daines. The race was further scrambled by the recent nomination of Sen. Baucus to be U.S. Ambassador to China, a political bank shot aimed at giving Montana Democrats a running start while allowing the ensuing committee musical chairs to benefit other imperiled Senate incumbents. Continued fallout from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act lends Rep. Daines a distinct advantage, but this will be a race to watch into the fall. Bottom line: lean R; GOP pickup.

Perhaps no state in the union has undergone a more dramatic political transformation in the last five years than Arkansas. Long the lone holdout in the decades-long partisan realignment of the south, Arkansas made a hard right turn in recent years, ousting a once-popular Blue Dog Senator and entrusting its House seats to an all-Republican delegation for the first time since Reconstruction. In light of this shift, it is hard to believe that just six years ago Sen. Mark Pryor (D) cruised to reelection with 79 percent of the vote and no Republican opponent. This year, Pryor will not be so lucky, drawing a top-tier challenge from freshman GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, a Harvard-educated attorney and former Army infantryman who captured a longtime Democrat stronghold in 2012. Despite a sterling surname—Pryor’s father served as governor and later held the same Senate seat for nearly two decades—the incumbent’s fortunes have faded with the disastrous rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). In a career predicated on insulation from national Democrats, casting the 60thvote for the PPACA is proving to be a politically fatal mistake. Pryor faces an uphill battle in a state that gave Mitt Romney more than 60 percent of the vote.
Bottom line: lean R; GOP pickup.

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

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