By Brian Sewell and Thom Kay
The November 2014 elections are months away, but the figurative starting gun has been fired and the horse-race coverage has begun. To both parties this midterm may seem especially significant. Halfway through President Obama’s second term, some Republicans believe their party is poised to take over the Senate.
Democrats currently have a 55-45 majority, but the party’s incumbents are under fire for standing by President Obama through the most turbulent period of his presidency. Meanwhile, several sitting Republicans will have to make it past a primary challenge by far-right candidates. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (234-198), the Democratic party’s highest hope is to keep their caucus intact, picking up seats where they can.
As the midterms approach, here are eight regional races worth keeping an eye on — for their careful (and clumsy) campaign strategies, the millions spent on attack ads, and their implications for Appalachia’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Senate – Kentucky
Mitch McConnell was first elected as a U.S. Senator 30 years ago and is currently the minority leader, the highest position for a Republican in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Considering that Mitt Romney won in Kentucky in 2012 by a staggering 23 percent, it would seem the only possible threat to McConnell’s re-election would be in the Republican primary from a field of challengers that includes businessman Matt Bevin.
But his real opposition comes from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes won her bid to become Kentucky’s Secretary of State by a huge margin in 2012. Now, however, she faces the difficult task of separating herself from Democratic congressional leadership and the White House.
A recent poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal had Grimes leading McConnell, who, according to the same poll, is slightly less popular than President Obama in the boldly red Bluegrass State.
U.S. Senate – North Carolina
In one of the most contested and costly Senate races in the country, a field of challengers are keeping first-term Sen. Kay Hagan and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on their toes.
In the lead-up to the May 6 primary, the two GOP frontrunners — Thom Tillis, an influential state legislator, and Tea Party conservative Dr. Greg Brannon — have mostly been busy criticizing each other rather than Hagan.
That role has so far fallen to outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity and others supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, who have already spent more than $8 million on anti-Hagan ads. A spokesperson for Hagan called the Koch-backed efforts a “baseless smear campaign” from a group that “doesn’t speak for North Carolinians.”
North Carolina may be the epicenter for the GOP’s efforts to take control of the Senate, but some progressives are also sour on Hagan’s record due to her prominent support of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. An Elon University poll released on March 3 found that just one-third of registered voters in North Carolina approve of Hagan’s job performance.
U.S. Senate – Tennessee
Sen. Lamar Alexander’s seat is solidly Republican — even Democratic strategists say the second-term senator is more likely to be defeated in the Aug. 7 primary challenge than be unseated by a Democrat such as challenger Terry Adams, who recently declared his candidacy.
That may be why Tennessee State Rep. Joe Carr decided to enter the race last August. “[Alexander] is popular, but there is a disconnect with his popularity to the way he has voted,” Carr said upon announcing his candidacy. The race in Tennessee provides a look at how opposition aimed at moderate Republicans from the party’s far-right wing has been increasing. Last year, a letter from the Tennessee Tea Party urged Alexander, a former governor and two-term presidential candidate, to “retire with dignity.”
In his response, Alexander said he would rather stick around, because “Washington needs more, not fewer, conservatives who know how to govern.”
A recent poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University found that 47 percent of self-identified Republicans favored Alexander in the primary. Just 7 percent favored Carr and 4 percent wanted “someone else.”
U.S. Senate – Virginia
Democrats considered Sen. Mark Warner’s seat safe until Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, entered the race. Warner, a rumored presidential contender, has been in the Senate since 2009. Gillespie has so far focused his campaign on health care and the economy. He has never held elective office, but nevertheless has the credentials and the fundraising experience from decades of advising GOP politicians to represent a serious challenge to Warner. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University at the end of March, however, found Warner with a 15-point advantage over Gillespie.
U.S. Senate – West Virginia
Between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, West Virginia saw a monumental swing toward the Republican Party. Of the 3,410 counties in the United States, Boone County, W.Va., saw the largest pro-Republican swing, approximately 42 percent. Suddenly, five-term senator and incumbent Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, seemed vulnerable. In November 2012, U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito announced she would run for Rockefeller’s seat. Two months later, Rockefeller announced he would not seek re-election. As of the end of March, Capito had a double-digit lead over the Democratic candidate, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. If she replaces Rockefeller, Capito will be the first Republican elected to represent West Virginia in the Senate since 1956. Either would be the state’s first female senator.
U.S. House – Kentucky’s 3rd District
Louisville, Ky., native Rep. John Yarmuth joined Congress in 2007 after defeating Republican incumbent Anne Northup. In September 2013, Yarmuth joined the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, putting him in the middle of debates concerning environmental and energy policy.
This year, Yarmuth faces a challenge from Dr. Michael MacFarlane, a Louisville-based physician critical of the Obama administration’s health care initiative. MacFarlane is popular for his financial support of state and federal Republican candidates, but he must overcome his party’s losing record from the last three elections to bring Kentucky’s 3rd district back into Republican control.
U.S House – Virginia’s 10th District
When Rep. Frank Wolf announced he would not be running for an 18th term late last year, attention from both parties shifted to northern Virginia’s 10th District. A wide field of Republicans, including Virginia State Delegate Barbara Comstock, are vying for a primary win come April, while Democrats plan to nominate a candidate from their party’s pool — which includes Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust — ahead of the primary, to bolster their chances of winning the long Republican-held seat.
According to the Rothenberg Political Report, after Virginia’s redistricting in 2012, the 10th district is competitive but remains slightly Republican.
U.S. House – West Virginia’s 3rd District
Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, has won 19 straight congressional elections, and while his margin of victory has shrunk in the past few races, he still managed to win somewhat comfortably in 2010 and 2012.
This year, however, may be different. Republicans have gradually made headway in southern West Virginia, where voters have strongly rejected President Obama. Republican strategists and outside groups have made Rahall a top target, dumping millions into attack ads attempting to tie Rahall to Democratic leadership and President Obama. State Sen. Evan Jenkins, formerly a Democrat, is the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination.