Early Bird-Dogging the 2014 Senate
[imgbelt img=ashleyandmitch.jpg]For political fanatics, the campaign never ends. Many rural states will
have senatorial elections in 2014. Who will head back to D.C. and
which newcomers are ascendant?
These conditions again bring the focus to the Senate races that will take place in the 2014 midterms. As political handicappers are already prognosticating their outlooks for the 20 Democrats and 13 Republicans up for re-election in two years, here’s my analysis, concentrating on the most rural states where these Senate contests will occur. States are ranked by % rural population as determined by the 2012 Almanac of American Politics from Census 2012 data (this ranking does not take into account small cities):
Maine – 59.3% residents rural (2nd most-rural state)
Sen. Susan Collins (R) heads into her election for a fourth term as the Pine Tree State’s senior senator with the retirement of her longtime colleague Olympia Snow. Collins is the only Republican up for re-election in 2014 from a blue state. A strong case can be made that she is the Senate’s last Republican moderate. I’ll define a GOP moderate as a member with an Americans for Democratic Action score of 30% or more; Collins pulled a 40% rating from ADA in 2010. Hailing from the potato-growing county of Aroostook in the far north, Collins has been very responsive to parochial interests such as fishing, blueberry farming and the forest and wood products sectors, though she was among a handful of senators to oppose the 2008 Farm Bill. She won her 2008 race by a comfortable 61%. But Collins, who got married at age 59 this year, may decide that life in the minority in a more polarized and hyper-partisan Senate is not where she wants to be anymore. If she runs again, she’s a lock for re-election.
Today, Democrats are in retreat across the Magnolia State. The party only has one statewide elected official — Attorney General Jim Hood. This is not exactly the bench with which to challenge Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who sits at the desk once used by Jefferson Davis. In the new Congress, Cochran may decide to use his seniority over fellow Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts to reclaim the ranking member slot on the Senate Agriculture Committee because Southern cotton, rice and sugar growers feel that Roberts sold them out on the issue of price supports as the Senate crafted and passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill last June. Cochran is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, where he can direct morsels of pork to one of the nation’s poorest states. Color this seat bright red.
Arkansas – 47.7% (5th most-rural)
Much has changed since Sen. Mark Pryor (D) won his second term in 2008, crushing a little-known Green Party challenger with 80% of the vote. In 2010, Republicans captured two Democratic House seats while holding the open seat that John Boozman vacated as he defeated Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D). Lincoln, who had been chairman of the Agriculture Committee, lost by 21 percentage points. This year the GOP took over control of the state legislature and picked up the open House seat in AR-4 that had been held by Blue Dog Mike Ross. For much of the last two years, Pryor worked as Majority Leader Harry Reid’s point man on rural outreach for the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee before being replaced by Alaska’s Mark Begich. Expect Republicans to come after Pryor with either sophomore Congressman Tim Griffin or freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, who took Mike Ross’s seat.
[imgcontainer left] [img:Tim-Johnson-270.jpg] [source]Indian Country TodaySen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), shown here at right with Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele, has had the strong support of many Native American voters.
When you look at a map of South Dakota and see those little islands of blue counties amid a sea of red, know that they are mostly Indian reservations. The Native American vote has been critical to the electoral fortunes of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who has not said if he will seek a fourth term in two years. In his 2002 race, Johnson beat Republican John Thune (now the state’s junior senator) by 524 votes thanks to the turnout on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2006, Johnson was sidelined for months after an almost-fatal brain hemorrhage, which has left some lingering health effects, although he rebounded in 2008 to win re-election with 62%. Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds has already filed the paperwork for an exploratory committee, and Democrats now suffer from Thin Bench Syndrome in this state that once sent George McGovern and Tom Daschle to the Senate. If Johnson steps aside, Democrats may prevail on ex-Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin or Matt Varilek, a former Johnson staffer, to carry their banner in an open seat. Earlier this month, Varilek was handily defeated by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem for the state’s lone House seat; two years ago, Noem beat Herseth Sandlin.
Montana – 46.4% (7th most-rural)
Big Sky country could see another competitive race if Sen. Max Baucus runs for his seventh term, as expected. Baucus, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, has drawn the ire of progressives for his deep-sixing of the public option during the drafting of Obamacare; his advocacy of free trade deals doesn’t sit well with labor either. Baucus spent north of $11 million in 2008 to win 73% of the vote against a Republican nobody. That was before Citizens United. Money will not be a problem for Baucus given his support for Big Oil, health insurers and other lobbies seeking loopholes and adjustments to the tax code. Baucus is also a major player on the Agriculture Committee, where he authored a permanent disaster title in the 2008 Farm Bill to help his wheat growers and livestock producers cope with the ever-fickle weather of the northern plains. There is talk of a primary challenge by outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer, but Schweitzer is actually more often mentioned as a dark horse presidential candidate in 2016.
Alabama – 45.2% (8th most-rural)
Crimson Tide. I know, you’re thinking it’s the nickname of the 2011 national champions in college football from that campus down to Tuscaloosa. But it also describes the political geography that continues to splash across the Heart of Dixie. AP recently reported that the GOP’s November 6 ‘Bama beat-down was so big that it swept away the last Democrat to hold statewide office and racked up wins in some rural counties that had long been Democratic bastions. The state’s Republican Party chair is now setting his sights on the Democratic sheriffs and other county courthouse offices for 2014. This is the environment that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) will see as he sets his re-election effort on cruise control for a fourth term. Sessions has won with 52% (1996), 59% (2002) and 63% (2008) of the vote statewide, and Democrats will be hard pressed to recruit a credible challenger to take him on in two years.
New Hampshire – 42.5% (11th most-rural)
Over the last several cycles, politics in the Granite State have looked like a broken voltage meter with Democrats having big years in 2006 and 2008 and Republicans staging a sweeping comeback in 2010. The results of 2012 indicate more of a Blue Hampshire trend re-emerging, with Democratic women winning both House seats and the governorship. This trend bodes well for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who will be up for her second term. There is talk that ex-Sen. John Sununu (R) will seek a rematch with Shaheen who defeated him 52%-45% in 2008 after losing to him by five points in their first race, 2002.
North Carolina – 40.7% (12th most-rural)
Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is on every pundit’s list of most vulnerable senators. In 2008, when Hagan knocked off Elizabeth Dole, Democrats flipped the Tarheel State to Obama, won the governor’s office and nabbed the House seat in NC-8 (birthplace of Jesse Helms). However the Democrats’ reversal of fortune began swiftly in 2010 as Republicans captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 1890s and claimed victory when Rep. Renee Ellmers knocked off six-term Democrat Bob Etheridge in the majority-rural district NC-2. The GOP’s radical re-map caused two moderate Democrats to head for the exits in NC-11 and NC-13 (both open seats resulted in GOP pickups), and Rep. Larry Kissell (D) was defeated in his re-drawn NC-8 seat. Highly unpopular Gov. Bev Purdue (D) did not run for re-election, opening the door to the man she had bested in 2008; November 6, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory won the keys to the Executive Mansion in Raleigh. Hagan is a centrist but her job approval is dragging; a November 2012 survey by NC-based Public Policy Polling found 37% disapproval and only 35% who said Hagan is doing a good job. Republicans seem to be looking at House Speaker Thom Tillis, a former IBM executive from Mecklenburg County (site of the 2012 Democratic national convention) or Congresswoman Ellmers as their favorites to make Hagan a one-term wonder.
Matt L. Barron is a political consultant and rural strategist based in Chesterfield, MA (pop. 1,222). Follow him on Twitter: @MrRural