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Republicans Pin Hopes On Senate Turnover In 2014


In Washington, D.C. the next election always seems just around the corner, even in the middle of summer when it seems a long way away to everyone else. Republicans are in the Senate minority today, but about now they're feeling confident about their prospects to pick up seats and maybe even regain the majority in 2014. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Republican hopes are high for a Senate takeover in 2014 that would confront President Obama with a united opposition from a Republican Congress. On the other hand, they were just as confident heading into the last two elections. As analyst Larry Sabato explains, Republicans started the cycle strong both times only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

LARRY SABATO: This is the third Senate cycle in a row where Republicans look likely to gain seats. Well, they did gain some in 2010, but not nearly as many as they could have had they nominated better candidates. And in 2012 they did the near impossible. They actually lost ground to the Democrats. So we're a little wary of projecting that Republicans will do well in the Senate election.

Nonetheless, I think the odds favor them tremendously to gain seats.

LIASSON: Republicans admit they blew it in the last two cycles but claim this time is different. Brad Dayspring is the communications director of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

BRAD DAYSPRING: Look, we've learned the lessons and we made some mistakes as a party in 2010 and 2012. We've learned what candidates who are not prepared can do, as we saw in 2012, and we saw what candidates who are not well positioned to win a general election can do in the case of 2010. That being said, if you look in a historical context, on average presidents lose six and a half seats in their sixth year. So we're feeling pretty good about the landscape.

LIASSON: The landscape looks like this: There are three open seats in red states where Democrats are retiring - West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, and most analysts agree with Larry Sabato, those three seats are nearly certain to flip to the GOP.

DAYSPRING: And the Republicans have a real shot at four seats where Democratic incumbents are running again - Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

LIASSON: Those four Democratic seats, all in red states, are what passes for the Senate battleground this year. It's not huge, but it should favor Republicans. The GOP needs a net of six seats to win the majority, so if they get West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, they'll also have to defeat three of those four vulnerable Democrats. Alaska's Mark Begish, Arkansas' Mark Pryor, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and North Carolina's Kay Hagan all represent red states that Dayspring points out went for Mitt Romney in 2012.

DAYSPRING: The map puts us completely on offense. We don't really have any incumbents who are facing real threats, so we're allowed to spread our resources around to different states.

LIASSON: So far, no Republican Senate incumbent seems in danger, although Democrats like Matt Canter of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee think they have a shot at defeating Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the least popular Senate incumbent today. McConnell looks likely to face a serious primary opponent before he gets to the fall contest, but in general even Cantor agrees his Democrats are playing defense.

MATT CANTER: We're playing defense because we hold the majority. This is what the majority looks like. The party that can win Senate races in states where their presidential nominee is not successful, that's the majority party in the U.S. Senate. And it's true, we're a victim of our success.

LIASSON: Realistic about the uneven playing field, Canter sees a silver lining.

CANTER: The good news is that incumbents tend to win elections, including if you look at Democratic incumbent senators, only three have lost reelection in the last decade.

LIASSON: Incumbents tend to win reelection. Presidents' parties tend to lose seats in midterms. Two historical patterns in conflict this cycle. The early line is that Republicans will almost certainly pick up seats this time, but they'll need to run the table to get where they want to be. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.