WASHINGTONâ€” Republicans are counting on some Southern comfort to win Senate control next year.
The fate of Democratic incumbents in GOP-trending Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, the ability of the 71-year-old GOP leader to hold his Kentucky seat and the eventual outcome of a Georgia primary will help decide whether Republicans gain the six seats necessary to grab power in the Senate for the final two years of Barack Obama's presidency.
Fifteen months before Election Day, the GOP has a genuine shot at the majority, especially with the midterm elections' traditional low turnout and possible Obama fatigue on the party's side. But both Republicans and Democrats stop short of writing off several Democratic incumbents who would have to lose for the GOP to regain power, and some Republicans worry about holding GOP seats in Kentucky and Georgia.
The transformation of the South from solidly Democratic to nearly all Republican in the half century since the 1964 Civil Rights Act has made the states generally inhospitable to Democratic politicians. And next year's elections will test whether the last remaining Southern Democrats can survive.
Overall numbers and geography favor the GOP â€” 21 Democratic seats are on state ballots compared with 14 Republican. Seven of the Democratic seats are in states that Obama lost in 2012 to Republican Mitt Romney, some by 15 points or more. Adding to the GOP bullishness: Democratic retirements in three of the seven states â€” West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota â€” and a few recruiting disappointments.
"There's a lot of hard work to be done, but we feel very comfortable about the progression of the 2014 map in our favor and the quality of Republican candidates expressing an interest in running in key states," said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Still, Republicans had a similar edge in 2010 and 2012, and failed to take control because of flawed candidates and ill-conceived remarks. The GOP list of lost opportunities is long â€” Delaware, Colorado, Nevada in 2010, Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and Montana in 2012.
"All of those prognostications were wrong," Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said. "One of the things that we demonstrated in the last election is that Senate races are about the two people who are on the ballot."
Next year's Senate contests stand as perhaps the best chance for the GOP, especially since Republicans will have to defend 24 Senate seats to the Democrats' 10 in the presidential election year of 2016.
Currently, Democrats hold a 54-46 edge. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is expected to win next week's Democratic primary in New Jersey and the Oct. 16 special election, boosting the Democratic margin to 10.
The political ads and videos in Kentucky make it seem like five-term Sen. Mitch McConnell has three opponents â€” primary challenger Matt Bevin, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Obama.
With close to $10 million on hand to make his case, McConnell is casting himself as the bulwark against the president's policies in a state that Obama lost by 23 percentage points last year. "To Barack Obama and his allies, coal country represents a threat," McConnell intones in a video that repeatedly shows the president and never mentions Grimes by name.
McConnell is seeking not just another six-year term but also a shot at the prize of Senate majority leader. And he is taking no chances either politically or legislatively.
He has run four television ads since March, responding quickly to outside groups, promoting his own candidacy and seeking to define his rivals. McConnell has assailed Bevin over payment of taxes in two ads, with one airing even before the businessman announced his GOP primary candidacy.
In the Senate last week, McConnell voted with fellow Kentuckian and tea party favorite Rand Paul to cut U.S. aid to Egypt. The vote put McConnell on the opposite side of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a rare place for a senator who has been a strong supporter of Israel.
On Thursday, in an embarrassment for McConnell, audio of a Jan. 9 telephone conversation revealed that his campaign manager said he was "holding my nose" while working for the candidate. In a brief telephone interview, Jesse Benton, who has deep tea party ties, didn't dispute the authenticity of the taping, saying he wasn't confirming it but wasn't denying it either. Separately, in a statement emailed to reporters, he said he believes in McConnell and is 100 percent committed to his re-election.
Economic Policy Journal posted the audio online.
If McConnell dispatches Bevin, who is on the air with his own ad hitting the senator for supporting the Wall Street bailout in 2007, Democrat Grimes has served notice that she'll be a tough competitor.
"I don't scare easy," she declares in a web video that criticizes McConnell as an obstructionist.
Republicans take heart in the senator's history of nail-biting wins. He prevailed by 5,169 votes in 1984 and survived another challenge in 2008.
LAST DAYS OF SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS?
Republicans are counting on two House members â€” one in office just seven months â€” to knock out moderate Sens. Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, two politicians with familiar family names.
Pryor stands as the most vulnerable after Arkansas voters soundly rejected a Democratic incumbent in 2010, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and the GOP got a top recruit, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a 36-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. Pryor welcomed Cotton to the race with an ad criticizing his House votes against a sweeping farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act and a student loan bill.
"Being able to draw that clear contrast is something that didn't happen in 2010," Cecil said. "Now we have a record."
Landrieu faces three-term Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a physician from Baton Rouge, in a state that has become more Republican and changed demographically since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Republicans and Democrats describe Landrieu as tenacious and point to past races that she won comfortably. She has $4.9 million cash on hand.
In swing-voting North Carolina, Republicans probably will have a tough primary race before picking a nominee to run against Sen. Kay Hagan. Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, has announced, and state Senate leader Phil Berger may run.
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
Republicans nervously watch the Georgia primary free-for-all, which includes no less than three House members vying for the open Senate seat.
Conservative Rep. Paul Broun has said evolution and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." Rep. Phil Gingrey, an OB-GYN since 1975, backtracked earlier this year after saying former Rep. Todd Akin was "partly right" when he said during his failed Senate race in Missouri last year that women's bodies can avoid pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Rep. Jack Kingston, a conservative, has emerged as the moderate.
Other Republicans are expected to join the field.
Georgia rules set the primary for next June, but if no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff occurs in early August, a late date that could leave the GOP with a roughed-up nominee.
Democrats recruited Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and CEO of Points of Light, the volunteer organization founded by President George H.W. Bush.
Democrats hope the Nunn name still resonates in the state nearly 20 years after the senator retired. The challenge is clear: No non-incumbent Democrat has won a major statewide race in Georgia since Gov. Roy Barnes in 1998.
ON THE HORIZON
Republicans are awaiting word from 75-year-old Thad Cochran on whether the Mississippi senator will seek a seventh term in a state the GOP will have no problem holding.
Alaska, where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is a top Republican target, could get another GOP candidate to join Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller, the tea party favorite who won the 2010 GOP primary against Sen. Lisa Murkowski but then lost as she prevailed as a write-in. Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan is expected to decide after he returns from a deployment in Afghanistan.
Among other potential GOP Senate challengers is Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in Michigan. Republican Ken Buck, who lost to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010, filed the necessary paperwork on Thursday for a run against Sen. Mark Udall.