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Senate Seat Trouble for Democrats

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Senate Seat Trouble for Democrats
Photo credit: laszlo-photo / Flickr

President Obama’s legislative agenda is stuck in neutral. House Republicans have thwarted the President’s policy ambitions whenever possible, giving us an extreme dose of partisan gridlock.

For Democrats, control of the Senate has been something of a consolation. Passing preferred legislation may be virtually impossible, but Democrats can approve the President’s judicial and political nominations.

That may be about to change. Democratic senators are facing a number of tough electoral battles, making the loss of the Senate in November a distinct possibility.

Why are Democrats in trouble?

A year or two ago, some political observers viewed a Republican Senate takeover as unlikely — Republicans would need to pick up at least six seats to gain control. But a rash of retirements came, and now some Democratic incumbents appear more vulnerable. The math also favors Republicans: CNN reports that of 36 seats being contested, 21 are Democratic, with half of those in so-called red or purple states.

Embattled incumbents

Democrats holding seats in southern states appear most vulnerable. Democratic Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina are facing extremely tough re-election battles. Another incumbent, Sen.

Mark Begich of Alaska, must defend his seat in a state President Obama lost soundly in 2012. The President’s deep unpopularity in their home states promises to make conditions for these candidates less than favorable.

The retirement effect

Along with a handful of embattled incumbents, Democrats were hit hard by a series of retirements. Senators Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Max Baucus of Montana, Carl Levin of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa all declined to defend seats.

The retirements of Johnson, Baucus and Rockefeller were particularly tough for Democrats, as their states tilt strongly against President Obama. While Michigan and Iowa aren’t as unfavorable, both races are expected to be highly competitive.

Once favored, now possibly fading

If unexpected retirements and embattled candidates weren’t tricky enough, Democrats must contend with the dimming prospects of some candidates previously considered safe. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was once a heavy favorite. But her charismatic challenger, former Massachusetts Sen.

Scott Brown, has recently made headway. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado is also on the defensive, with popular Republican challenger Cory Gardner pulling even with him in the latest polls, according to the Denver Post. Perhaps most worrisome for Democrats: According to the Washington Post, President Obama has a disapproval rating of more than 50-percent in each of the eight states listed above.

Other factors

Daunting electoral math isn’t the only reason Democratic control of the Senate is hanging in the balance. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has galvanized Republicans. Because conservative voters are vehemently against the law, it will be a major motivating factor for voters.

An energized opposition could mean problems for Senate Democrats, many of whom have been running away from the President and his signature health care law. According to a report from ABC News, Democrats have a similar plan: motivating female voters by highlighting the President’s equal pay initiative, while criticizing Republicans on women’s issues.

Despite an uphill climb, all is not lost for Democrats. Two years ago, Republicans lost seats they were projected to easily win. The 2012 Senate campaigns of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock imploded following ill-advised media comments. It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in November.

In fact, USA Today recently predicted the bitterly contested seven-way Republican Senate primary in Georgia may produce an electorally damaged candidate, giving Democrat Michelle Nunn a strong chance of victory. If Democrats manage to pick up Georgia and hold one or two of their most hotly contested seats, another two years of Senate control may be in the cards.

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