If President Obama ever feels like he has nothing to worry about, all he has to do is check a calendar. It’s roughly 550 days until voters head to the polls for the 2014 midterms, and any senator or congressman in a mildly competitive district is feeling the heat. It might feel like 2012 just came to an end, and voters in swing states are probably still suffering from advertisement-induced trauma, but in Washington, it’s election season already.
Not only does this mean it’s not too long until we once again live through unending campaign commercials, rallies, speeches, newspaper endorsements, and all of the other joys that elections bring, but it also means that if you thought Washington was timid and lethargic now, just you wait. Lame-duck midterms are seldom good for the incumbent party and 2014 looks like it'll follow that precedent.
Some of this is caused by voter fatigue with a Democratic White House and Senate, some is caused by some good luck for the GOP in candidate recruitment, but most of the fear in the hearts of Democrats comes from this map. Republican-controlled Senate seats are almost uniformly in Republican-leaning states, while many of the Democrat-controlled seats are in battleground states, or states that supported Mitt Romney in 2012.
You don’t have to be a political nerd to see that this is not a good playing field for Team Blue. The only blue state with a Republican senator up for reelection is Maine, and despite President Obama’s whopping win there, Senator Susan Collins is popular enough that she's virtually untouchable. Compare that one seat with those that the Democrats have to defend, and it’s not hard to understand why senate Democrats may be even more skittish than usual.
First, there’s the South. Virginia isn’t much of a worry for Dems – incumbent Mark Warner is a lock to repeat his 2008 cakewalk – but North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana all have incumbent senators whose seats are extremely threatened.
Kay Hagan of North Carolina has been sticking with her party more often than not in the hope that North Carolina's 2008/2012 purple state status wasn't just a fluke, but Mark Pryor of unquestionably red Arkansas raised some eyebrows by opposing the increased background checks for guns that President Obama and so many of his party’s other leaders have been pushing. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted alongside most of her leadership in regards to background checks, but then angered liberals by voting against a ban on assault weapons. These votes might give people on the left migraines, but they’re the only way for these red-state Democrats to stay competitive in places where Obama is a four-letter word.
As if those three seats aren't enough trouble, Senators Max Baucus of Montana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa are all retiring. Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota all gave Romney double-digit victories, and although Iowa is slowly trending blue, it is still a serious enough swing state that Democrats can’t take it for granted. Republicans control the Governor’s office after defeating an incumbent Democrat in 2010, and the state’s other Senate seat. They also got a break when controversial and unelectable Congressman Steve King surprised the party establishment by deciding to pass on a run, giving the GOP a chance to nominate someone more palatable to the average Iowan.
The most interesting case, however, may be Alaska’s Mark Begich. Begich was elected by a Santorum-like margin in 2008 against the legendary Ted Stevens, and was expected to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents this time around. He’s not taking any risks – he joined the GOP’s gun bill filibuster – but so far, it’s looking like his seat could be surprisingly unthreatened. In the home of Sarah Palin, this Obamacare-supporting senator is pulling a 10-point positive approval rating. That’s not usually what one would expect from such an out-of-place member of the Senate.
Even if Democrats wind up watching a break with Begich, their troubles aren’t over. They control 53 seats today – they only have to lose four for Mitch McConnell to take Harry Reid's job as Majority Leader. With the GOP playing offense, vulnerable Democrats aren’t going to be taking any risks anytime soon, and that means that getting anything done in Washington is about to become even harder.