U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced Friday that he would not seek a sixth term -- putting an open Senate seat in play in a state that has gone from blue to red in recent years. Republicans are already licking their chops.
While GOP hierarchy believed they had an excellent opportunity in 2012 to retake the U.S. Senate, they came up short. Now they have another chance as the 2014 election cycle looms. They need to pick up six seats to flip the chamber -- but it wont be easy.
Even before Rockefeller announced that he was retiring from the Senate, Republicans were feeling good about the chances of U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito who has announced that she is seeking the GOP nomination. Conservatives have slammed Capito, the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, as too liberal. She could face trouble in the Republican primary if conservatives and tea party supporters unite behind one candidate. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is a possibility but signs indicate hes more interested in running for Capitos congressional seat in 2014.
With Rockefeller stepping down, Gov. Earl Tomblin becomes the most likely Democratic candidate, though U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall could also be in the running. The Democrats have a solid bench in West Virginia, with four state Cabinet officials -- Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Treasurer John Perdue, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and Auditor Glen Gainer -- waiting in the wings.
Now forced to defend an open seat in West Virginia, Democrats cant be happy with the way the political map is shaping up in 2014 as they have incumbents running in states that are Republican leaning. Republicans will have their opportunities to pick up Senate seats but they will have a hard time running the gauntlet to flip the Senate.
Alaska: Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Begich scored a major upset when he beat longtime U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008. While Sarah Palin will probably take a pass at taking on Begich, there is still an impressive field of Republican candidates. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is already in the race and Gov. Sean Parnell and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan could also seek the Republican nomination. Attorney Joe Miller, who ran for the Senate in 2010, could also run again. Begich will have a hard time defending his seat in this traditionally Republican state.
Arkansas: While Arkansas has been trending Republican in recent years, Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor appears to be in good shape as he seeks a third term. There are loads of Republicans lining up to run for the open governorship in 2014, including candidates who ran for the Senate in 2010 like former GOP state chairman Gilbert Baker and businessman Curtis Coleman. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is now the NRAs point man in ensuring there are armed security guards in schools, seem more focused on Little Rock than Washington in 2014.
Iowa: Iowa is a swing state but Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin has been a mainstay for decades. If he seeks a sixth term in 2014, Harkin will be tough to beat. But hell be 75 in 2014. If Harkin decides to retire, Republican candidates are waiting in the wings, including U.S. Rep. Steve King and social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats.
Louisiana: Despite coming from one of the more established political families in Louisiana, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu could be in trouble in this increasingly red state. But she has pulled together impressive victories before, when pundits were writing her off -- including a win over Republican John Kennedy in 2008. Some of the leading Republicans in the state -- U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, U.S. Rep. John Fleming and former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry -- are looking at the race.
Montana: If you look at just the presidential elections, Montana is a reliably red state. But Democrats have done very well at the statewide level. While Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines holds Montanas only congressional seat, the two U.S. Senate seats, the governorship and every state Cabinet position are held by Democrats. Longtime U.S. Sen. Max Baucus will be 73 in 2014 when he is up for a seventh term. Heading the Finance Committee, Baucus is one of the most powerful men in the Senate. Its tough to imagine him stepping down just yet, but if he does this could be an interesting battleground -- just as it was for Democrat Jon Tester when he won close elections in 2006 and 2012.
North Carolina: Democrat Kay Hagan rode Barack Obamas coattails in 2008 to knock off Republican Elizabeth Dole but, as she seeks a second term, she will have a fight on her hands. While Mitt Romney failed in winning back most of the battleground states that had gone for Obama in 2008, the Republicans carried North Carolina in 2012 -- a bad sign for Hagan. State House Speaker Thom Tillis name is being bandied about on the Republican side but there could be a field of candidates looking for the GOP nomination.
South Dakota: Democrat U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson has had major health issues in the past but he rebounded with a big win in 2008. Republicans have recruited a major candidate to run against Johnson in 2014 -- former Gov. Mike Rounds who made national headlines with his anti-abortion positions. Other candidates -- namely U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem -- could enter the contest and a bloody Republican primary could give Johnson a boost.
There are other possibilities for Republicans to pick up Senate seats. Senate cousins Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico are up for re-election in 2014. While those two states are battlegrounds, they are leaning increasingly Democratic. Veteran U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., will be 80 in 2014 and could retire, leaving another open seat. While U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., won his seat in 2008 by 312 votes, he has generally kept a low profile in Washington and will not be an easy target for Republicans in 2014.
With New Hampshire increasingly turning blue, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Sheehan should be in good shape. Republicans will also have trouble defeating U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., despite Virginia remaining a battleground state. While there could be an interesting Democratic primary in New Jersey between U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone and Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2014, Republicans will be hard pressed to win the seat no matter how the primary goes.
One wild card will be former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, despite losing his Senate seat in 2012. With John Kerry easily expected to win confirmation to be secretary of state, Brown would offer the Republicans a good chance of taking the seat, though likely Democrat candidate U.S. Rep. Ed Markey will be tough opposition. But there are whispers that Brown could be running for governor in 2014. There are some Democrats in the Senate -- namely Chris Coons of Delaware, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jack Reed of Rhode Island -- who should cruise in 2014.
A host of Republican incumbents in red states -- Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Jim Risch of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, newly appointed Tim Scott of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Enzi of Wyoming -- appear headed to easy victories in 2014. Its tough to see how Democrats can emerge to defeat any of these incumbents and none of them appears vulnerable to tea party challenges.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is expected to face a conservative challenger in the primary -- most likely state Sen. Tom Davis -- but its tough to see how Democrats take advantage of that battle. Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss could also see a conservative challenger -- names being kicked around include U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, U.S. Rep. Tom Price and former presidential candidate Herman Cain -- but Democrats are at a disadvantage in Georgia.
There could be two seats that could be easier reaches for Democrats in 2014 though they both pose challenges. GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell could draw a tea party challenger. While Kentucky is reliably Republican in presidential elections, Democrats have done well in state elections, and the likes of state Secretary of State Alison Grimes, State Auditor Adam Edelson. former State Auditor Crit Luallen and state Sen. Dennis Parrett could enter the race. Actress Ashley Judds name is also still being kicked around. Still, unless McConnell is toppled by a tea party challenger in a bloody primary, this will be a tough race for the Democrats.
While backing Democrats in presidential elections, Republicans can still win races in Maine. Its unlikely that U.S. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will be defeated in the Republican primary, though. Leading Democratic possibilities -- former Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree -- appear more focused on defeating Gov. Paul LePage in 2014 than taking down Collins. For the moment, Collins is the favorite.
With almost two years to go, Republicans start off as the favorites to pick up Senate seats in 2014 but they will need a few breaks to pick up the six seats they need to control the chamber. A lot can happen in two years and seats that appear to be locks -- as can be seen in the Senate battles in Indiana and Missouri in 2012 -- sometimes slip away. Regardless, for now, Republicans should be optimistic on how 2014 is looking.
Tallahassee freelance political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.