3 Key Factors Each Party Is Banking On for a Senate Majority

Nathan L. Gonzales August 20, 2013 · 11:09 AM EDT

The Senate playing field is starting to solidify, and the fight for the majority looks like it will be decided in about a dozen states. But even though the fields of candidates are still taking shape in some of those contests, both Republicans and Democrats are banking on some macro-factors that will affect races at the micro-level.

Democrats are counting on three trends to boost their effort next year:

1. History will repeat itself in GOP primaries. This isn’t all that big of a stretch considering Republicans handed five Senate seats to the Democrats over the past two election cycles because weak GOP nominees have thrown races away. This cycle, GOP primaries in Kentucky, Alaska, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina could affect the party’s prospects next November.

Of course, just because it has happened in the past, doesn’t mean it will happen again. And some of this cycle’s GOP primaries are in states that Republicans probably won’t need to win to get to the majority, including Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.

2. Democrats will be able to boost turnout. This is a big question mark. Democrats are looking to mobilize young voters and minority voters next year to lessen the impact of a traditional midterm electorate that is older and white and usually benefits Republicans.

But while Democrats would love to get to 2012 turnout levels with key constituencies in North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, the party plans to go beyond presidential levels in Georgia by targeting nearly a half-million African-American voters in the Atlanta area who didn’t vote last year. If they didn’t come out for President Barack Obama, why will they come out for Michelle Nunn?

3. Democratic incumbents don’t lose. Three Democratic senators have lost re-election in the past decade. Republicans will need to defeat at least three Democratic senators next year to have any shot of winning back a Senate majority. Some of that strong track record has to do with the strength of incumbents and their campaigns. But some vulnerable Democrats chose to retire rather than risk a loss.

As usual, Democratic incumbents will raise plenty of money, hire experienced campaign managers and surround themselves with top-tier consulting teams. But the four most vulnerable Democratic senators (Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Mary L. Landrieu and Kay Hagan) all represent states that President Barack Obama lost in 2012. And they could face broader electoral problems that are beyond their control. It’s not out of the question that Republicans could knock off three or four senators.

Republicans are counting on three trends boosting their effort next year:

1. History won’t repeat itself in GOP primaries. See above. With the exception of Georgia, Republicans aren’t in imminent danger of nominating unelectable candidates. But as Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently, the cycle could still take a turn for the worse for the GOP, and damaged candidates who look like primary pretenders now could evolve into contenders later. And as Democratic strategists point out, even when establishment favorites survive, the primary could cause them to say things that will be used against them in the general election.

2. Obamacare will be toxic. Republicans are convinced that Obamacare is so incredibly unpopular that it will help the party take the Senate and hold the House. This week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released an ad against Landrieu using Obamacare and paid for some billboards against Hagan. Earlier this month, the Club for Growth aired a television ad against Pryor and mentioned Obamacare first.

If the elections are a simple referendum on Obamacare, Republicans should do well in enough GOP-leaning seats to put the majority in reach. But if Democrats effectively portray Republicans as obstructionists who are unwilling to compromise but willing to shut down the government, that could take Republicans from playing offense to defense on the health care issue.

3. The red map will benefit the GOP. Democrats are defending nine of the 11 Senate races that constitute the current playing field, including seven of the most competitive states. Mitt Romney carried all but two states in the 2012 presidential election. So Republicans start in a great position. But the GOP also had a favorable map last year and ended up losing two seats.

Republicans could also fall back onto the typical midterm dynamic. Over the past 75 years, the president’s party has lost Senate seats in 14 midterm elections with an average of six seats. (The president’s party has gained seats in four elections over that time with an average of one seat. And in 1998 there was no net change.) But it is worth noting that unlike the House, Senate gains and losses are more dramatically affected by the mix of Senate seats up in a particular cycle.