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The 2014 Senate: The Races Thus Far, Part 5

Due to the large number of states with senatorial elections in the South in 2014, this region is being split into two parts to do the current state of the races justice. This is the largest growing region of the United States. Thus, the political clout is moving south and west. For example, Texas gained four seats in the House in 2001 while Florida gained three. Given current population projections, come 2020 both Florida and Texas are on track to gain more seats while Georgia and perhaps Virginia or North Carolina may also gain a seat.

This entry will cover the Senate elections in Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Arkansas and the special election in South Carolina (one of two in that state). In Alabama, Jeff Sessions is up for reelection and should win rather easily. Thus far, no Democrats have stepped forward to challenge him, nor have any Republicans. So there appears to be a easy path to reelection. In fact, the Democratic Party has pretty much conceded this race from everything this writer has read about it. The best hope for the Democrats is to come up with a conservative candidate and keep Sessions below 60% of the vote.

In Texas, Republican incumbent John Cornyn faces an interesting race. With their growing Hispanic population, Texas may one day convert from a red to purple state, but that year is not 2014. Thus, Cornyn would appear relatively safe. Looking at the history of Republican success in the state, Governors George W. Bush and even Rick Perry are not viewed as “enemies” of Hispanics and they did rather well with that demographic in their elections. Cornyn may not be of that mold, but he should win. The question this time out is how much actual campaigning he will have to actually do. That depends on the Democratic opponent. Cornyn will actually face a primary challenge from Erick Wyatt, an Army veteran in a state with deep military roots. Although token opposition at best, the real fear for Cornyn regarding a primary is whether state attorney general Gregg Abbott enters the primary. This state office has been a stepping stone to the Senate as Cornyn knows all too well.

For the Democrats, this may be the first test of their Texas Blue project, an effort to win more elected seats in Texas. Looking at the names of possible contenders, one can see that they are tapping into the growing Hispanic population in this state: Mike Villareal, a state representative from San Antonio, Rafael Anchia a state representative from Dallas, and Julian Castillo, the mayor of San Antonio- all Hispanic and all from major population centers. Throw in former Houston mayor Bill White as a possibility also. White lost badly to Rick Perry in the governor’s race in 2010 indicating some statewide weakness. Instead, the Democrats may opt for a fresher face. Julian Castro would likely be the best and most well-known of the bunch, and is clearly a rising star in national Democratic politics. The question remains whether John Cornyn in 2014 is the best shot, or should he run for Governor in 2014, or even wait to challenge Ted Cruz on down the line. He is young enough and popular enough to make his own decision. With the somewhat charismatic Wendy Davis out of the picture (likely gubernatorial run), this race bears watching. My educated guess is that Castro will forego a run in 2014 and another Hispanic candidate will step forward- Villareal or Anchia- and Cornyn, who won with only 55% of the vote in 2008, will actually have to campaign.

The political scene in South Carolina changed somewhat when Jim DeMint resigned his seat and headed to the Heritage Foundation. Governor Nikki Haley appointed congressman Tim Scott to fill that seat. He is one of the most conservative members of the Senate who also happens to be African-American. Thus, any Democrat faces a serious dilemma. The special election to replace him in the House should serve notice. His district is considered conservative, but redistricting added some liberal areas. Still, he was replaced by the scandal-tainted Mark Sanford, a Republican, in the special election held this year. This illustrates the power of the GOP and conservatives in South Carolina.

Here, the problem is interesting. If the Democrats can field a somewhat conservative white candidate it would create an unusual race between a white Democrat and a black Republican. One analysis stated that this may force “racist Republicans” to either sit out the race or vote for the white Democrat. In my opinion, this analysis is rather pedestrian and over-stated and more accurate if this was 1964. South Carolina is not “racist,” but it is conservative. Sure, there are racists in that state, but there are racists in New York as there are liberal and Democratic racists. Thus, it is this writer’s belief that conservatism trumps race in the “changing South” and that since the Democratic bench is weak (state representatives at best), Tim Scott will win in 2014.

Moving a little north to Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection and his leadership position is the problem. If he attempts to compromise with Democrats, he will likely face a primary challenge, but if he does not and digs in his heels, he will be portrayed as obstructionist and bring on criticism also. He is in an interesting situation to say the least. As far as a primary challenge goes, two congressmen- Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie- have ruled themselves out. According to PPP, McConnell is the least popular Senator in the country. That comes with the territory being minority leader. The main problem is that among Kentucky voters, the approval rating is just 36%- dangerous territory for an incumbent Senator of his stature. Thus, he becomes vulnerable to a challenge from either side. Businessman Matt Bevin has been talking to state Tea Party groups to gauge a primary assault from the Right. One Kentucky liberal group, Kentucky Progress, has already stated they would help a Tea Party candidate against McConnell, thus making a primary challenge more difficult for him. However, any potential primary challenger must face reality: McConnell is well-funded with over $7 million in the bank and thus far, he is taking no chances by running advertisements and fundraising with a vengeance.

Leaving aside the primary, the Democrats must still come up with a winnable candidate. Of course, that task would be made easier if the unthinkable happens and McConnell is defeated in a primary. Some of the biggest names have thus far declined- Jerry Abramson (Lt. Governor and former Louisville mayor), Steve Beshear (current Governor), Jack Conway (state AG who ran against Rand Paul), John Yarmuth (US Representative), and last and certainly least, “actress” Ashley Judd. Thus far, Ed Marksberry, who lost a congressional race in 2010 and musician Bennie J. Smith have declared their candidacy, but neither strike particular fear into McConnell, nor inspire the Democrats.

Instead, three names may meet that criteria. Former Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun is a possibility as is former Representative Ben Chandler. He is described as a moderate to conservative Democrat, a member of the Blue Dog coalition when in office and what makes him intriguing is that he won as a Democrat in a Republican district. Although he voted against Obamacare and TARP, he also voted for SCHIP, the Obama stimulus and most importantly to Kentucky, cap-and-trade legislation. Thus, he enters the race with some vulnerabilities unique to Kentucky. That leaves secretary of state Allison Lundergan Grimes who in 2011 won with the most votes of anyone in a statewide race. Thus, her popularity in the state, at least for her current job, is unquestioned. What makes her somewhat vulnerable is her stance on voter ID laws. She even went so far as to suggest that her office be used as the permanent address for voter registrants without a permanent address. At this point, she is top choice for the Democrats and she is seriously considering a run. Democrats have some hope here in a general election and point to the fact that despite Kentucky’s red status, certain Democrats have been successful recently in statewide races. In the end, many residents will likely hold their noses and reelect McConnell, although he will face a fight for sure.

In North Carolina, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan will seek reelection. Hagan enters this race with some baggage that is at odds with voters in the state, mainly her support of gay marriage which the voters defeated in a referendum. That issue figures to loom large in a general election. Additionally, her support for Obamacare will likely be an issue in 2014. Hagan ran in 2008 against Elizabeth Dole, but this time out, there is no Obama at the top of the ticket. Even with him there, she only garnered 53% of the vote. With a voting record now and no Obama at the top of the ticket, against the right Republican, she faces a serious threat to her incumbency.

They may have found their man in state house speaker Thom Tillis who is credited with being the architect of the GOP winning the state legislature. At this point, Tea Party activist Greg Brannon is a declared candidate in the primary. Representatives Renee Ellmers and Virginia Foxx are also considering entering the primary race as is former Rep. Susan Myrick and James Cain, the former Ambassador to Denmark. Regardless of the size of the field, Hagan does face a serious challenge against the eventual GOP winner. There may be pressure to keep both Ellmers and Foxx in the House although both seats are in reliably Republican districts. Tillis has been mentioned before as a rising star and 2014 may just be his year. Although Hagan has made strides to appear bipartisan of late, Tillis has actually had more success at the state level in that area and he will certainly stress actual success over potential or attempted success in the case of Hagan. Personally, I think the Democrats became drunk on the possibility of turning North Carolina blue in 2008 when Obama narrowly won the state. In 2012, they defeated Obama. In 2014, they could possibly build on that momentum and eliminate Hagan.

Unlike other states, Arkansas has drifted into the red column as far as national politics go. They may vote in a Democratic Governor or state legislators, but with four Republican congressman and John Boozman winning a Senate seat in 2010, they are clearly in the Republican fold. Even a conservative Democrat faces a daunting task. Thus no matter how he portrays himself in the campaign, Mark Pryor, the Democratic incumbent, is threatened. The recent history of the Democratic debacle in 2010 when Blanche Lincoln faced a strong challenge from fellow Democrat Bill Halter from the Left, backed by unions, is fresh in the minds of state Democrats. While no one has stepped forward to challenge Pryor in a primary- thus, making the dynamics considerably different than 2010- the Republican bench is very deep even with Congressmen Rick Crawford and Timothy Griffin out of consideration.

That leaves three very strong possibilities- Congressmen Tom Cotton and Steve Womack, and Lt. Governor Mark Darr. Two important considerations must be taken into account. No congressional district in Arkansas is in serious danger of falling into Democratic hands in Arkansas, so a sitting congressman running for Senate is fine. However, this figures to be a costly race as Democrats are scurrying to ensure a Pryor victory. The worst thing that can happen to Pryor is for union money to start pouring into the race which is what happened in 2010 in support of Halter over Lincoln which created a backlash by conservative Democrats against Halter. Still, the eventual Republican nominee will have to raise money since Pryor has built up a war chest for this election with outside money expected to enter the race also. Of the three possibilities, Tom Cotton is perhaps the most highly recognized nationally and would likely be the best fundraiser. However, he is a first term congressman with little statewide recognition. Womack was recently appointed to the defense appropriations subcommittee which may render his entrance into the race moot. For Darr’s part, the problem is fundraising since he is little known outside Arkansas and his current position is mainly symbolic and not substantive. He also lacks a voting record to run on and he won his Lt. Governor’s race by a small margin. He originally stated he would likely make a decision in April after the legislative session, but here we are in June with no announcement.

In the end, Pryor is in considerably better shape than Lincoln was in 2010. He likely faces no primary challenge and any realistic Republican opponent- likely either Darr or Cotton or someone else- has their own name recognition or fundraising ability problems. Perhaps, Republican hopes are false hopes here and reliant on the congressional successes in 2010 and 2012 and Boozman’s senatorial election in 2010. Still, just throwing a scare into the Democrats and Pryor and diverting resources to defend a southern Democrat could pay dividends elsewhere. In my opinion, we need people like Cotton in the House, so why not go with Darr and let the chips fall where they may?

Next: The South, part 2 of 2- Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina (Graham), Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana.

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