Lay Of The Land Looks Steep For Senate Democrats

With the House of Representatives expected to remain in Republican hands, the Senate will be the focus of midterm elections in 2014. The political landscape there appears unfavorable for Democrats.

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The outcome of the upcoming midterm elections in November could largely define what the president's last two years in the White House are like. Here's why. The House is expected to remain Republican. And if the GOP picks up six seats in the Senate, they'd take the majority there, too. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports that possibility is putting the president and his party on the defensive.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Historically, the party in the White House loses an average of five Senate seats in a second term midterm. And this year, says political analyst Larry Sabato, the political landscape is especially daunting for Democrats.

LARRY SABATO: It just so happened that the pattern of seats coming up in 2014 is about as good a map as Republicans ever get and about as bad a map as Democrats ever get.

LIASSON: This year's Senate races include three open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, where Democrats are retiring, and four vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the red states of Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Alaska. These seven states have a lot in common. Mitt Romney won them all and they are all inhospitable to Barack Obama.

SABATO: Essentially, they're white, rural, and Republican. In many of these states, Obama is far more unpopular there than he is nationally.

LIASSON: Nationally, the president's approval rating is in the low 40s, in those top Senate race states, he's in the 30s. President Obama likes to get out of Washington, D.C., but these states will not be on his itinerary, says Cook Political Report Senate analyst Jennifer Duffy.

JENNIFER DUFFY: There are states where the president would do a Democratic candidate more harm than good. We saw the same thing, frankly, in 2006 with President Bush. There were just some places he could not go.

LIASSON: That's always true for a president.

DUFFY: I think that is but I think there are an unusually high number of those states this time.

LIASSON: So, what can the president do to help his party's Senate candidates? He can raise a lot of money and he can provide a favorable storyline for Democrats, built around raising the minimum wage, job training and education. Guy Cecil runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

GUY CECIL: You'll see us in the next 18, 20, 24 weeks draw a very strong contrast around the economy, dealing with child care, dealing with college affordability, with families who are struggling to figure out how to take care of both of their kids and their parents as they get older. And it's something you're going to see us talk a lot about leading into this election.

LIASSON: Democrats are also hoping Republicans do what they did to themselves in 2010 and 2012, when the GOP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by nominating Senate candidates that were too extreme or incompetent to win. Brad Dayspring, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says his party will not let that happen again.

BRAD DAYSPRING: When you lose elections, you take note of the things you did wrong and you learn from those. And in 2012, and certainly in 2010, we had nominated some candidates who were not well prepared for the Senate general election. And we have to take steps to avoid doing that as a party.

LIASSON: For example, just yesterday in Colorado, Republicans convinced a top-tier challenger to Democratic incumbent Mark Udall to get in the race and the Tea Party candidate to drop out. Colorado is one of the states beyond the top seven races where Republicans think they can expand the map with more pick-up opportunities. Along with Colorado, the GOP is hopeful about Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oregon. And they've got what they think is a winning message: tie vulnerable Democrats to the president and to Obamacare. Not just the law itself, says Dayspring, but the way it was sold.

DAYSPRING: Bigger than Obamacare, which is a very important issue - but bigger than that is the fact that most of these Democrats made false promises in selling the bill to their constituents.

LIASSON: Republicans are getting a big assist in delivering that message from the deep pockets of the Koch brothers, whose superPAC is airing $27 million of ads against Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Best friends often say and do the same things. Take Barack Obama and Kay Hagan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Senator Begich hasn't always been straight with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But now, Louisianans are finding out that they lied.

LIASSON: Democrats aren't only playing defense this year, however. They are also targeting two Republican seats: in Georgia, where the Republican senator is retiring, and in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is powerful but unpopular. President Obama can't help much on the ground in either of those states, but Democrats have a pretty good surrogate, former President Bill Clinton, who this week was in Kentucky, firing up the Democratic base.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: There's a reason all these groups organize and spend all these money running these ads.

LIASSON: As Clinton explained, negative ads are intended to discourage voters from voting.

CLINTON: And I am here to tell you - I know, it was my life - it makes a big difference who wins this election.

LIASSON: So while the president restricts his travel to the places where he won't do any harm, Bill Clinton is planning to show up everywhere Mr. Obama can't, as Democrats try to make the best of the weak hand they're playing this election year.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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