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Senate 2014: One direction, but how far?

This concludes our four-part update of the 2014 electoral environment. First, we proposed that 2014 might end up being a little like 1986; next, we described the narrow battlefield in the House and why Republicans might have a better chance to make gains than Democrats; then, we noted that a high level of gubernatorial incumbency might limit turnover; finally, below, we break down the state of play in the Senate.

As a programming note, we’re taking off next week: The Crystal Ball will next hit your inbox on Thursday, July 11. So we hope you’ll join us in celebrating our independence by declaring your independence from politics for a long weekend. — The Editors

It’s too soon to see which way the Senate winds will be blowing in the fall of 2014. But unless conditions somehow change drastically, one thing seems certain, even 18 months out: The seat flips will be mainly or entirely in one Red direction. Right now, Democrats aren’t seriously contesting any Republican seat (excluding New Jersey), while the GOP has an excellent chance to flip two Democratic seats (South Dakota and West Virginia) and at least a fair chance in four other states (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina). Republicans, there’s your good news.

Nothing in politics is static for long, and we expect a shift here and there. For example, if the Republicans nominate far-right Reps. Paul Broun or Phil Gingrey in Georgia, then prospective Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn could actually have a shot at a seat in the congressional chamber her father, Sam, once helped run. On the other hand, if former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) surprises everyone and doesn’t run for the open Senate seat of retiring Democrat Max Baucus in Montana, Republicans will have another likely pick up. So we recognize that the chess board is not yet fully assembled.

What’s unusual is that, already, there are far more Red chess pieces on the board than Blue, and in better strategic positions. Since 1954, there have been nine (out of 30 total) cycles where one party didn’t flip a single Senate seat held by the opposing party. These flat, “zero-base” Senate elections have hurt both parties at different times: the Democrats in 1980, 1994 and 2010, and the Republicans in 1958, 2006 and 2008 (all were wave years). The three other instances were years of little movement: in 1960, Republicans flipped two Democratic seats while Democrats flipped none; in 1966, Republicans won three Democratic-held seats while the Democrats didn’t add any; and in 1990, Democrats netted a single Republican seat while the Republicans didn’t win a single Democratic seat. Obviously, in the event that Democrats can’t flip any Republican seat, they’d prefer to limit their damage, as in 1960 or 1966.

Republicans want a repeat of 1980, 1994 or 2010: a wave election where all or almost all the tight Senate races fall in their direction. They argue that Obama’s popularity is already dipping, scandals are taking their toll, and the lack of much action (helped along by GOP intransigence in the House) will produce the dreaded “sixth year itch” — dreaded, that is, by the incumbent White House party, because the out-of-power party gains lots of seats when the phenomenon occurs. The recent, best instances of sixth-year itch have all helped the Democrats — 1974, 1986 and 2006 — so maybe Republicans are due some turnabout as fair play.

Democrats counter that an improving economy will be a balm for “the itch,” and voters won’t take retribution against the majority party if they are basically happy. In addition, Democrats point to 1998, when Bill Clinton’s scandals were supposed to produce a sixth-year itch — and it didn’t happen because of GOP overreach on impeachment and a good economy. President Obama’s party senses possible voter retribution for the increasingly obvious (in their view) GOP gridlocking in Congress; you can’t stop progress, they say, and Republicans will pay a price for doing so. They can also point to 2012 as a year in which they made Senate gains on a seemingly poor playing field, although this map is worse for them on paper.

All of this has yet to sort itself out fully. But even with an early, cloudy Crystal Ball, we see a fundamental that cannot be denied. Only rarely do you have a Senate battleground so tilted to one party before the real campaign begins and other factors have a chance to play out. If one party, the Republicans, has a nearly solid, secure set of seats, and the other party, the Democrats, has to worry about six or seven seats turning over, well, the odds set themselves.

But odds for what? Republican gains, sure. It will be a gigantic shock if the GOP doesn’t pick up two or three seats, net, in November 2014. But Republicans need six seats, net, to take control of the Senate. (We’re assuming here, as almost everyone does, that Democrats re-capture the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat in New Jersey in the October special election.) We won’t torture our Republican readers by reminding them in detail of the half-dozen or more seats they threw away in 2010 and 2012 by selecting poor candidates in races they ought to have won in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada and North Dakota. If the party base had used more sense, they’d already be defending a Senate majority. But what’s past is past.

The GOP’s problem is that few campaign analysts will be surprised if they forfeit another seat or two in the current cycle because of factional in-fighting or by selecting ideologically pure but unelectable nominees. One could argue the GOP has already waved bye-bye to a potential seat pick up in Iowa by dithering, and then there’s the Georgia case we’ve mentioned, above. The Republicans’ prospects also don’t look that great in several other contests that could be competitive: an open seat in Michigan, for instance, and also ones against incumbents in Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire. But it’s still early.

The long and short is that Republicans are very likely to be able to boast of Senate gains on election night 2014. Yet everything — and we mean everything — will have to fall just right for them to be able to brag about a new Senate majority. Is it possible? Certainly — this far out, most things are. Is it probable? The odds for a GOP Senate are a lot better than you’ll get playing Powerball, but that’s the most Republican-friendly way you can put it for now.

Full descriptions of all 35 races are below.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating changes

Map 1: 2014 Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Note: For a full breakdown of the races and a list of possible candidates, click here.

Alaska: Joe Miller (R) is back and ready to take another shot at a Senate seat in the Last Frontier. In 2010, the Tea Party-backed Miller defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in the GOP primary, only to lose to Murkowski’s remarkable write-in effort in the general election. But in the aftermath of 2010, Miller is now viewed relatively unfavorably by Alaska Republicans — a May survey found he had a 34%/49% favorable/unfavorable rating among potential GOP primary voters. This is good news for Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R), who made his bid for the seat official last week. Treadwell has already slammed his GOP opponent, saying “I believe I don’t scare people. Joe does sometimes.” But Treadwell is a Connecticut native with Harvard and Yale degrees — hardly a Wild West archetype. Not that he’s a carpetbagger — he has lived in Alaska for decades and is a highly regarded Arctic expert — but as National Review’s Robert Costa recently tweeted, “Mead Treadwell may be the most perfect name for an establishment fave in a Senate GOP primary. Like a character from a Chris Buckley book.” Miller or state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan (R), who is still mulling the race, might be able to cast Treadwell as too establishment. Waiting for the eventual nominee is Sen. Mark Begich (D), who is trying to say and do all the right things to hold onto this seat. The incumbent recently described himself as something of a Rockefeller Republican, and he’s aggravated New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enough over gun control that the Big Gulp-hating mayor pressured Democrats out of putting on a Big Apple fundraiser for the Alaskan. TOSS-UP.

Alabama: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) is running for reelection and there’s no reason to think he won’t win. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Arkansas: Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is taking heat from both flanks — conservatives say he’s in lock-step with President Obama, liberals say he betrayed his party on gun control. The truth, of course, is likely somewhere in between. Pryor is already running ads in Arkansas defending his vote against expanded background checks, stating that “No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do. I listen to Arkansas.” Considering nearly 61% of Arkansans voted for Mitt Romney (R) in 2012, Pryor is doing the only thing he really can do — run to the right on certain issues, like gun control, in order to maintain a shot at reelection. While he doesn’t have any declared opponents yet, Reps. Tom Cotton (R) and Steve Womack (R) are both considering the race, and many Republicans particularly want Cotton to run. Cotton, a favorite of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, seems the likeliest challenger. It’s become clearer over the first half of 2013 just how vulnerable Pryor is, so we have moved this race into TOSS-UP territory.

Colorado: While things may be getting a little hairy for Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Sen. Mark Udall (D) appears to be in a solid position to win reelection in 2014. So far, no Republican has been willing to jump into the contest while many have said no, prompting National Journal to entitle an article “Colorado’s Forgotten Senate Race.” Ex-Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), who was soundly defeated in the state’s 2006 gubernatorial race, has been mentioned as a GOP possibility, as has ex-Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R). Former state House Majority Leader Leader Amy Stephens (R), who has connections to the Colorado Springs-based social conservative organization Focus on the Family, is also considering a run. But perhaps the most telling thing is that Rep. Cory Gardner (R), seen as a Republican rising star, is not going to run. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

Delaware: One of the aforementioned duds from the 2010 cycle, Christine O’Donnell (R), is considering another run in 2014, and might be the best GOP option. That’s really all that needs to be said — Sen. Chris Coons (D) is looking good. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

Georgia: Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R) retirement has opened up a seat that should be won by Republicans. And like flies to honey, there are already five GOP candidates in the field. Ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R) are the establishment’s candidates, while socially conservative Reps. Phil Gingrey (R) and Paul Broun (R) are also seeking a promotion to the upper chamber. (Kingston is an ally of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, while Handel narrowly lost to Deal in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.) Businessman David Perdue (R), cousin of ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), is also in the race. While Gingrey has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth, he has nothing on Broun, who has a long history of making controversial statements. The Democratic nominee will probably be non-profit executive Michelle Nunn, daughter of ex-Sen. Sam Nunn (D), unless some bigger names unexpectedly get into the race. Georgia’s other senator, Johnny Isakson (R), recently expressed fear that “a perfect storm” of factors could shift a relatively safe Republican seat into Democratic hands. A no-holds-barred, five-way GOP primary — which will likely go to a runoff — could result in the nomination of someone like Broun or Gingrey, which could put this seat in play. But it’s possible that determining the nomination by convention, which Georgia Republicans recently decided against, could have been even more unpredictable — just ask Republicans in Virginia. Barring Broun or Gingrey winning the GOP nomination, this race is LIKELY REPUBLICAN. But if either winds up being the Republican standard bearer, watch out. If Democrats are going to pick up any Republican-held Senate seat in 2014, this would probably be the one.

Hawaii: Whereas Georgia will see a busy GOP primary, the Aloha State will feature a highly competitive Democratic contest. Appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), Sen. Brian Schatz (D) will have to beat back a challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) to make it to November 2014. Hanabusa, who according to reports was Inouye’s preferred replacement, immediately gained the endorsement of the powerful women’s group EMILY’s List after declaring her candidacy, and she even has Inouye’s widow raising money for her. But Schatz has received strong labor backing, and Hanabusa’s weak electoral track record in the House makes us think Schatz is probably an early favorite in the contest. On the GOP side, ex-Rep. Charles Djou (R) has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but pickings are relatively slim for Republicans in the heavily Democratic state. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

Idaho: Sen. Jim Risch (R) has drawn no opposition, and even if he does, this seat is SAFE REPUBLICAN.

Illinois: When Sen. Dick Durbin (D) let it be known that he would seek reelection, any drama in this race exited stage right. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

Iowa: While Democrats seem to have settled on Rep. Bruce Braley (D) as the party’s nominee in Iowa, the Republican field is just starting to take shape in the race to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D). Ex-U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker (R) is now officially in the race, using football analogies in his announcement (Whitaker played football at the University of Iowa). The other candidates, at least at the moment, are David Young (R), Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R) now-former chief of staff, and Sam Clovis, a radio host. (Grassley is staying neutral for now and helping them all raise money.) There are others considering the race, including state Sen. Joni Ernst (R), who is taking steps toward announcing a bid. With the GOP field full of second-tier candidates bracing for a possibly competitive primary, the unopposed Braley has an edge at this point. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

Kansas: Apparently Sen. Pat Roberts (R) wants to make sure he won’t receive a primary challenge because he’s planning to raise a bunch of money despite the fact that he won’t have much trouble with Jayhawk Democrats. A Democrat hasn’t represented Kansas in the Senate since 1939, the party’s longest drought in the country. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Kentucky: It may be a little less than a year and a half until Election Day but Democratic groups are already launching ads against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). Perhaps they think he’s vulnerable to the right challenger: Recent polling shows Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) running close to the minority leader. Grimes, who remains mum about her plans, is considered the Democrats’ strongest potential candidate, having won more than 60% of the vote in her 2011 statewide win. Still, McConnell has amassed a massive war chest for his reelection effort, which may intimidate Grimes and others possible candidates, such as ex-state party chair Bill Garmer (D) and former Miss America Heather French Henry (D). Moreover, at the federal level Kentucky has proven to be stridently Republican in recent years, and it was one of eight states where Mitt Romney won at least 60% of the vote in 2012. In other words, we’re going to need to see significant changes in this contest before we start considering it truly competitive, and even if Grimes runs it’s just really hard to imagine McConnell losing in a strongly anti-Obama state. LIKELY REPUBLICAN

Louisiana: Like her neighbor to the north, Mark Pryor, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is a Democrat who represents pretty conservative territory — Mitt Romney won nearly 58% of the Pelican State’s vote in 2012 — making her one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. At the moment, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) appears to be her principal opponent for 2014, as Rep. John Fleming (R) has opted out of the race. Ex-Rep. Jeff Landry (R) has left the door open for a run but seems like an unlikely candidate. The early take on a Landrieu-Cassidy matchup is that it could be very, very close. Harper Polling, a conservative alternative to the liberally-aligned PPP, surveyed the still-hypothetical race in April and found Landrieu leading 46%-41%, underscoring the uphill battle Landrieu and other Democrats have in many Southern states where they have a high floor — mostly due to overwhelming African-American support — but a low ceiling that makes it hard to achieve a majority on Election Day. And let’s remember that in Louisiana, a plurality isn’t enough — the winner must get 50% plus one of the total votes. Alone among all the states, Louisiana’s election on Nov. 4, 2014 is actually a jungle primary. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote that day, the top two finishers advance to a runoff election on Dec. 6. Landrieu has been there a couple times: Of her previous three election wins, Landrieu only managed to get a majority in the first round of balloting once, in 2008. As for the number of candidates that will jump into this race, only time will tell. Besides Cassidy, the other GOP possibility we’re watching is state school board President Chas Roemer, son of ex-governor and one-time 2012 presidential candidate Buddy Roemer (R). But there could be a few other candidates, major and minor, competing next year — perhaps even Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), though we’re skeptical. While there were only five names on the ballot in 2008, there were nine in 2002. On the surface, it would make sense for Cassidy to prefer a larger field and, therefore, a runoff against Landrieu because turnout in the second round might be much lower than in the first. But evidence suggests otherwise: In Landrieu’s 2002 win, also in a midterm atmosphere, turnout fell less than 1% from the Election Day jungle primary to the runoff. This race features many complications, not to mention Landrieu’s difficulties with American geography, which is why we continue to categorize it as a TOSS-UP.

Maine: If Democrats couldn’t get close to beating Sen. Susan Collins (R) in 2008 during what proved to be a great cycle for Democrats, they won’t have a shot at beating her in the 2014 midterms. Assuming she runs — and there’s no indication she won’t — Collins is a sure bet to retain her seat. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Massachusetts: Fresh off his solid special election win this past Tuesday, Sen.-elect Ed Markey (D) will have to wait and see who wants to challenge him in 2014 in the seat’s regular election. It might be a re-match with the GOP’s Gabriel Gomez. While it became apparent during the special election campaign that Markey is not a particularly strong statewide pol, he is a Democrat in a very Democratic state, which means this race starts off as SAFE DEMOCRATIC.

Michigan: Similar to the situation in Iowa, Michigan Democrats have quickly settled on an established candidate while the Republican field could still be developing. Rep. Gary Peters (D) may very well have the Democratic field to himself following the decision of Debbie Dingell (D), wife of House institution Rep. John Dingell (D), to pass on the race. Peters is the Democratic establishment’s choice, and the lack of a competitive primary should allow him to build up a formidable war chest. As for who might face him, ex-Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) is the first big Republican name to enter the contest, and could potentially be the strongest GOP candidate. Of the state’s House members, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) opted against a run, but Rep. Justin Amash (R) is still mulling the race, which may concern portions of the GOP leadership in the Senate. Amash has a fascinating background and profile, but he’s only 33 years old and is perhaps too libertarian for his own party to fully embrace. PPP recently surveyed the lay of the land in Michigan and found Land performing better against Peters than any other potential GOP candidates, including Amash. One other wrinkle: Land lives in Amash’s Grand Rapids-to-Battle Creek congressional district, so it’s not out of the question that Land could just run for the House if Amash enters the Senate race.  Except for ex-Sen. Spencer Abraham’s (R) one term in office following a win in the 1994 Republican Revolution, Republican Senate candidates haven’t had much luck in Michigan over the past 30 years. The early advantage is with Peters, who would have some big shoes to fill in the Senate after the departure of the retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D). LEANS DEMOCRATIC

Minnesota: Despite only winning by a smidgen after an incredibly prolonged recount in 2008, Sen. Al Franken (D) is far from being the highly vulnerable incumbent many people expected him to be. In fact, word is that Franken is not considered a top target by the national GOP. By eschewing the national media and raising a lot of money, Franken has strengthened his reelection hand immensely. No top-tier challenger appears interested in taking on the former Saturday Night Live comedian. So far, businessman Mike McFadden (R) and state Rep. Jim Abeler (R) are the only two candidates in the GOP field, with state Sen. Julianne Ortman (R) pondering a bid as well. But Franken appears well positioned to win a second term. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

Mississippi: Sen. Thad Cochran (R) says it’s too early for him to decide whether or not he’s running in 2014. Considering the Magnolia State’s heavy Republican lean, a Cochran retirement would undoubtedly attract a lot of Republican hopefuls, and plenty of names have already been bandied about. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (R), state Auditor Stacey Pickering (R) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), among others, are possible successors to Cochran. State Attorney General Jim Hood (D) is probably the only Democrat who might make an open seat race interesting, but he may be looking at running for a higher state office down the road. Even if Cochran decides against another run, this seat will be very hard for Republicans to lose. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Montana: For a guy who supposedly hates Washington, D.C., ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) sure seems to be gearing up to run for the Senate in 2014. Schweitzer has been coy about whether or not he plans to get into the race, saying “I haven’t told anyone I’m running for sure.”  Although Schweitzer recently became CEO of a mining company, that isn’t an indicator that’s he’s leaning against a run. In fact, reports have surfaced that he’s pursuing a “charm offensive” to win support from in-state allies of retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D), which would seem to indicate that Schweitzer is fully considering the race. His final decision on the contest matters a great deal to the many Republicans mulling the race: Polling indicates that Schweitzer would be an early favorite (depending on the opponent) to keep Baucus’ seat in Democratic hands, meaning his actions could attract or shoo away many in the GOP. Big-name possibilities such as Rep. Steve Daines (R), ex-Gov. Marc Racicot (R) and ex-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), who lost to Sen. Jon Tester (D) in 2012, anxiously await Schweitzer’s decision. Tester, by the way, would “bet the farm” on Schweitzer entering the contest. Other Democratic possibilities include state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and EMILY’s List Pres. Stephanie Schriock. If Schweitzer runs, GOP big hitters like Daines and Racicot (who looks very unlikely to enter the race anyway) probably wouldn’t run; if Schweitzer doesn’t, the eventual Republican nominee will probably be favored in Big Sky Country. Everything rests on Schweitzer, and we know he loves the attention. This is a TOSS-UP for now, with a probable lean to Schweitzer if he makes the race.

Nebraska: The surprising retirement of Sen. Mike Johanns (R) and the agonizingly slow decision by Gov. Dave Heineman (R) not to run for the seat put this race in a deep freeze from which it is only starting to emerge. Shane Osborn (R), an ex-Navy pilot who served a single term as state treasurer from 2007 to 2011, is in the race. The state’s three Republican U.S. House members — Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith and Lee Terry — all appear unlikely to run, although that could change. A forever candidate, state Treasurer Don Stenberg (R), could make yet another run for Senate, as could state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), although Bruning indicated earlier this year that he would like to stay on as AG (Bruning and Stenberg lost the 2012 Republican Senate primary to now-Sen. Deb Fischer). There are also several non-officeholder possibilities, including businessman Pete Ricketts (R), who got blown out by then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in 2006, and Ben Sasse (R), president of Midland University and a George W. Bush administration veteran. While Republicans could have a crowded primary, Democrats are still looking for a candidate: former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler are often mentioned, but neither seems likely to run. Out of an abundance of caution given the uncertainty on both sides, we’re only calling this race LIKELY REPUBLICAN right now, but it would ultimately be an utter shock if this seat went to a Democrat.

New Hampshire: The biggest news in this contest over the past several months has been former Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-MA) flirtation with running against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). We think that if he runs for anything this cycle, it’ll probably be for Massachusetts governor. That leaves former Reps. Frank Guinta (R) and Jeb Bradley (R) at the top of the list of potential candidates, but there’s just not much going on here as of yet. The Granite State is another place — like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota — where Republicans really should be in better shape than they are, but this race may eventually become competitive anyway. For now, it’s LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

New Jersey: Public polling released since the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) shows that Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) has a commanding lead in the upcoming August primary and October special election. Reps. Frank Pallone (D) and Rush Holt (D) as well as state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D) are also in the Democratic primary. Given that they are all running from safety — because this is a special election, they don’t lose their current jobs if they lose — losing wouldn’t do them much harm, and losing appears to be what they are headed for against Booker. Meanwhile, appointed Sen. Jeff Chiesa (R) is not running to hold the seat, meaning that the Republican nomination is likely to fall to Steve Lonegan, a conservative activist who ran against Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary. Christie is keeping Lonegan at arm’s length, and we doubt that Lonegan’s messaging — his website features a large banner extolling “Conservative Republican Victory” — is the right fit for this Blue state. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment’s left turn in its presidential politics extends to its other federal races, where Sen. Tom Udall (D) appears to be in fine shape for reelection. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

North Carolina: For one of the most competitive races of the cycle, the Republican field aligning against Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has been quite slow to develop. While there are many rumored names, including several members of the state’s large Republican contingent in the U.S. House, the only major name — if you can call him that — to enter the field is Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the state House. Tillis has been mentioned as a top contender since the start of the cycle, and he should be able to raise a ton of money. But speakers of state legislatures also are, by definition, insiders, and Tillis has a lot to prove as a statewide candidate — and a legislative record to defend. No matter who the Republican nominee is, this should be a marquee contest in a politically divided state, and it’s very unlikely Republicans can capture a Senate majority if they don’t win here. TOSS-UP

Oklahoma: Unlike some other Republican senators, Sen. James Inhofe (R) has nothing to worry about in a Republican primary. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Oregon: Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) is in much the same position as Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) — he could lose under the precise set of right circumstances, but none of those circumstances have yet developed. The lack of a Republican bench in Oregon — Rep. Greg Walden, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, isn’t running for higher office — works to Merkley’s advantage. So even if Merkley has the occasional embarrassing moment, it doesn’t look like there’s a Republican who can take advantage. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

Rhode Island: Sen. Jack Reed (D) shouldn’t have any trouble. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

South Carolina (regular election): By playing a major role in the ongoing negotiations over immigration reform — and voting in support of the Hoeven-Corker border security amendment — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is all but guaranteeing a primary challenge next year. That said, Graham was always going to be targeted by the Tea Party because of his Senate deal making. But who might the challengers be, and will they actually be credible? So far, state Sen. Lee Bright (R), Nancy Mace (R) — a businesswoman and the first female graduate of The Citadel — and former congressional candidate Richard Cash (R) have been mentioned. These are not huge names; it’s telling that the Palmetto State’s U.S. House representatives, featuring some members closely aligned with the Tea Party (Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan and  Trey Gowdy, all of whom were first elected in 2010), have stayed out of this race. That’s all a long way of saying that there has not been a lot of buzz about Graham being terribly vulnerable so far, but there’s a long way to go. On the Democratic side, businessman Jay Stamper (D) is in the race, but the Republicans would have to nominate a really terrible candidate to give the Democrats any glimmer of hope here. SAFE REPUBLICAN

South Carolina (special election): While Graham could face a primary, appointed Sen. Tim Scott (R) does not appear to be in any trouble. Scott is a strong ally of the aforementioned Reps. Duncan, Gowdy and Mulvaney, which means he’s got no Tea Party problems. Provided he wins in 2014, he will have to run again for a full term in 2016. SAFE REPUBLICAN

South Dakota: After the retirement of Sen. Tim Johnson (D), Democrats were focused on two candidates: ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of the senator. But both of them declined to run, leaving Rick Weiland (D), a former unsuccessful House candidate who is close to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). Daschle’s backing of Weiland apparently frosted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), who preferred the more conservative (and probably more electable) Sandlin. Weiland starts as a big underdog to ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R), who is the likely (but not guaranteed) Republican nominee. Rounds caught a break recently when Rep. Kristi Noem (R), the at-large representative who defeated Sandlin in 2010, decided against a run. Rounds might eventually have primary trouble but he looks like a good bet to be in Washington come 2015. LIKELY REPUBLICAN

Tennessee: Conservative groups have been hunting far and wide for a primary challenger to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) — they’ve even got a website set up,, to support an eventual challenger — but so far no one of significance has jumped into the race. Stay tuned; Alexander is another Republican who supported the Hoeven-Corker immigration amendment. Democrats don’t have a shot here against Alexander. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Texas: Sen. John Cornyn (R), after seeing his border security amendment fail to be included in the big immigration reform bill working through the Senate, is a likely “no” vote on the legislation. Given that Cornyn has far more to fear in a Republican primary than in a general election, a “yes” vote could be very problematic for him. If Cornyn truly is vulnerable to a challenge, it might develop late — just like in 2012, when now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R) benefitted from a pushed-back primary and a runoff in his ultimately successful upset of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R). As of now, Cornyn appears to be in good shape — his only challenger is Iraq war veteran Erick Wyatt (R), who is an unknown at this point. Cornyn got a little negative publicity recently when National Journal reported earlier this month that he is collecting benefits from three different public pensions — a practice commonly known as “double-dipping,” or in his case, triple. It’s fodder for a challenger but not a particularly big deal. SAFE REPUBLICAN

Virginia: Republicans were always going to have an uphill climb against wealthy Sen. Mark Warner (D) next year, but their chances got even slimmer when they opted to select their nominee via convention next year. Having a convention rather than a primary increases the possibility of the GOP picking an unelectable far-right candidate, similar to current 2013 lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson (R). One name to watch is Del. Bob Marshall (R), a culture warrior who would probably make the kind of highly conservative social issues statements that have been causing establishment Republicans headaches lately. The convention also makes it even unlikelier that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who will be leaving office because of term limits after the 2013 gubernatorial election, will run against Warner. McDonnell is also in serious trouble because of an FBI investigation into large, unreported gifts that he and his wife have taken from “friends” — the kind of friends attracted to powerful people, residing in the Governor’s Mansion, who can do them favors. Wholly apart from this growing scandal, the GOP activist crowd dislikes him because of a major tax-raising transportation bill passed earlier this year. SAFE DEMOCRATIC

West Virginia: The Mountain State hasn’t been represented by a Republican in the U.S. Senate since 1959 — the longest Republican Senate dry spell in the country. That looks likely to change in 2015: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore (R), appears to have a clear path to the seat. While Capito does have a primary challenger in former Del. Pat McGeehan (R), she remains a heavy favorite to win the nomination, and Democrats have not yet found anyone of substance to run for the seat. While it’s possible that a quality Democrat will run — Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) or state Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis (D) have been mentioned — this race, along with South Dakota, should be an easy pickup for the Republicans. Losing either one would be a disaster for Republicans, along the lines of their improbable defeats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota last cycle. LIKELY REPUBLICAN

Wyoming: Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, was rumored to be considering a run for U.S. Senate, but now that Sen. Mike Enzi (R) is reportedly seeking another term, Cheney’s political future appears to be on hold. Even if Enzi retired, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R), who holds the Cowboy State’s lone House district, would probably have been next in line, anyway. Enzi does have a primary challenger in “self-described soldier of fortune” Thomas Bleming, but Bleming only got about 6% of the vote in his challenge to Sen. John Barrasso (R) last cycle. SAFE REPUBLICAN