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7 must-watch Senate races in 2014
With control of the upper chamber on the line, these are the 2014 contests to keep an eye on
 
McConnell faces a tough challenge back in Kentucky.
McConnell faces a tough challenge back in Kentucky. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

With 10 months to go until the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a huge fight to see which party will control Congress for President Obama's last two years in office.

The GOP is widely expected to hold on to the House, which means the Senate is where most of the action will be this year. There are 33 seats at play, and Republicans need to pick up six seats to take back control. They have a more-than-decent shot: Only 13 GOP seats are up for re-election, leaving the Democrats to defend more territory in a year when the botched ObamaCare rollout is sure to be a main talking point.

But there's another factor in their favor: Polls have consistently shown a handful of Democrats who represent conservative-leaning states trailing their Republican challengers.

Here's a look at the seven races that will be crucial in deciding who holds the majority in the Senate next year.

Kentucky


(Facebook.com/Alison Lundergan Grimes, Facebook.com/Senator Mitch McConnell)

The candidates: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who is seeking a sixth term; businessman and Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in the primary; Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat who is seen as an up-and-coming force in state politics.

The big issues: Expect the state of the country's balance sheet to be front and center in this election. Both challengers have attacked McConnell's work on budget issues, albeit from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and say they will fight for a balanced-budget amendment if elected. Support for Kentucky's coal industry, a $6 billion annual business that employs more than 14,000 people throughout the state, will also be an important theme. The most interesting wrinkle: ObamaCare, which should ostensibly work against the Democrat in the race, except for the fact that Kentucky, led by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, has one of the best state exchanges in the country.

The context: In many ways, the McConnell-Bevin face-off is a proxy fight for the soul of the GOP. McConnell has been targeted by national conservative groups who think establishment Republicans have sold out their constituents on a variety of issues, including funding ObamaCare. Bevin, a Louisville businessman, has attacked the incumbent for negotiating with Democrats to end the government shutdown and avoid a debt-ceiling default, even though a majority of Kentuckians disapproved of those tactics. McConnell has raised considerably more money than Bevin, but outside organizations like the Senate Conservatives Fund are pouring millions into Bevin's campaign. Despite his low approval ratings, McConnell is expected to defeat his primary challenger — but then he will then have to face Grimes, a formidable opponent who has been polling well in head-to-head matchups with McConnell.

What the polls say: McConnell and Grimes are running neck and neck. A mid-December survey from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling group shows McConnell and Grimes virtually tied with 43 percent and 42 percent of the vote, respectively. Fifteen percent of respondents were undecided. In October, PPP found Grimes leading 45 to 43 percent.

The money war: As expected of the incumbent, McConnell is way ahead, amassing a $10 million stockpile by the end of September last year. But the third quarter of fundraising last year showed a couple of interesting developments. McConnell took in $2.27 million between July and September, but Grimes did even better. In her first quarter as a Senate candidate, she raised $2.5 million. Bevin's haul was paltry in comparison. He took in just $822,000 — and $600,000 of that was his own money.

The fiercest ad: McConnell's camp released a spot in August that tied his primary challenger to state and national Democratic officials, and referred to him as "Bailout Bevin" for receiving $200,000 in aid from Connecticut for his company. The ad, which relies heavily on research from the National Review, repeats a clip of Bevin supposedly telling a group of Democrats, "We're on the same team here, I'll tell you that much."

North Carolina


(Facebook.com/Kay Hagan, Facebook.com/Thom Tillis)

The candidates: Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-termer who has also served in the state legislature, is running for re-election. On the GOP side, there are five vying for the chance to unseat Hagan: State House Speaker Thom Tillis, the most prominent Republican in the race; Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon, who picked up an endorsement from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; Rev. Mark Harris; Heather Grant, a nurse; and Bill Flynn, a local radio broadcaster.

The big issues: This race is going to come down to Hagan's support for the president's health-care overhaul. Millions of dollars have been flowing into the state since October to buy advertising linking her to President Obama and the flawed HealthCare.gov rollout. Republicans will also likely attack Hagan for voting to improve background checks for gun owners even though the bill eventually failed.

The context: The Republicans see this race as a must-win if they want to take back the Senate. Hagan, who rode Obama's coattails to office in 2008, is vulnerable because the political landscape in the Tar Heel state has changed dramatically since then. Six years ago, the president eked out a victory by 14,000 votes. By 2012, however, Obama's popularity had waned, and he lost North Carolina by 100,000 votes while the Republicans picked up the governorship and a few house districts. Hagan has positioned herself as a moderate independent of her party, and tried to focus on her support for the military, as well as her work to reduce the debt. She will most likely face Tillis, a staunch conservative who wants to defund ObamaCare and is against gay marriage. The competitive GOP primary, however, may give Hagan a boost as the four contenders try to jockey for the position of "most conservative" in the race. Furthermore, Hagan may benefit from a moderate-liberal backlash against the state's dramatic rightward turn under Republican leadership.

What the polls say: Hagan has seen her lead all but evaporate in the last few months. In September, PPP's numbers showed Hagan up by 12 to 17 points over all of her challengers (with the exception of Flynn, who didn't enter the race until two months later). By November, she was trailing Brannon by one point and the rest of the Republican field had cut her lead down to two or three points. Through December, the race looked like a toss-up.

The money war: Tillis has been out-fundraising his GOP competitors, but his campaign only took in $830,000 by the end of September. (That number includes $250,000 he lent himself.) Party heavyweights like Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) are stepping in to help him boost his numbers. Hagan, on the other hand, has taken in more than $7.8 million this election cycle.

The fiercest ad: It's hard to choose one, as anti-Hagan forces have blanketed the airwaves with multimillion dollar advertising buys. Most of the television spots have hit Hagan over her vote in support of health-care reform.

Georgia


The candidates: Sensing an opportunity with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) announcing his retirement after two terms, eight Republicans have joined the race to replace him, including Reps. Phil Gingrey, Jack Kingston, and Paul Broun. Karen Handel has also thrown her hat in the ring; the former Georgia secretary of state caused a stir when she tried to take funds away from Planned Parenthood when she worked for the Susan G. Koman breast cancer foundation. Businessman David Perdue, minister Derrick Grayson, entrepreneur Eugene Yu, and patent attorney Art Gardner round out the list. The Democrats are backing Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.

The big issues: Like most of the other contests this year, ObamaCare will be a top issue in this race. Immigration reform will also be an important topic since Georgia has the 10th-largest Latino population in the country.

The context: Georgia may be one of the few pickup opportunities for the Democrats. Chambliss' retirement has opened the door to a wide-open field of potential candidates who have been doing their best to "out-conservative" each other. With so many candidates, expect this primary battle to be ugly and chaotic. Nunn, who runs Points of Light, a nonprofit originally founded by President George H.W. Bush, is a political neophyte. But she's got the right family connections and she can't be tied to Obama because she's never run for office before. Whether she wins the race will largely depend on who survives the Republican primary. She'll have more of a chance against a Tea Partier who pulls the GOP hard right than a moderate who can appeal to independents.

What the polls say: This race started out competitively with Nunn either tied with or leading her Republican challengers. Democrats are more unified around Nunn than the Republicans are around any of their candidates. If that changes, Nunn may see her support start to decline.

The money war: Nunn raised $1.6 million in the last quarter of 2013, giving her a total of $3.3 million since she announced her candidacy in July. Those are solid numbers, but her main GOP competitors aren't that far off. Kingston had about $2.9 million on hand at the end of the third quarter, while Gingrey had $2.6 million. Handel and Broun reported totals of $310,000 and $450,000, respectively. Perdue has $1.8 million in the bank, but more than half of that money has come from himself.

The fiercest ad: Handel, who is known for her hard-charging style, released a radio spot in September that zeroed in on the three congressman in the race. She never mentions Kingston, Broun, or Gingrey by name, but the ad accuses them of rank hypocrisy. "Only in Washington can congressmen campaign against ObamaCare — while receiving special treatment and thousands in taxpayer subsidies that the rest of us don’t get," Handel says. (The notion on the right that lawmakers get special treatment under ObamaCare is actually bunk.)

Arkansas

(Facebook.com/Mark Pryor, Facebook.com/Representative Tom Cotton)

The candidates: Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is hoping to be re-elected for a third term. His challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, is a Harvard-educated war vet who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The big issues: The farm bill will be a central theme for this race as Pryor harps on Cotton's initial opposition to the legislation as reckless for the state. Cotton will try to tie Pryor to President Obama, who is very unpopular in Arkansas, and health-care reform.

The context: Pryor may be in real trouble this year. Considered the most vulnerable of all the incumbents, he faces an uphill battle in a state that rejected Obama by 24 points in 2012. (The state legislature also flipped from blue to red that same year.) The Affordable Care Act is not popular in Arkansas, where more than half the residents have a strongly unfavorable view of the program. Pryor, who attended the University of Arkansas, is banking on voters seeing him as the true Arkansan and will try to paint Cotton, who is in the middle of his first term as a congressman, as an aggressive politician who is mostly interested in padding his own résumé. Cotton, who is seen as an up-and-comer within Republican circles, is being backed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's (R) leadership PAC. Recent history also isn't on Pryor's side: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her re-election campaign in Arkansas in 2010 by a bruising 21 points. Of the state's six delegates in Congress, Pryor is the only Democrat who remains.

What the polls say: Cotton is up by seven points, according to polling from Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway of Inc./WomanTrend.

The money war: Pryor began this campaign season with a $1.8 million cash advantage over his challenger. He had $4.4 million in the bank at the end of September. Cotton, however, began closing the gap in the third quarter of last year with a haul of $1 million, bringing up his total to just over $2.2 million.

The fiercest ad: Pryor's "North Star" ad is the one everybody's talking about. "I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in his word," Pryor says in the 30-second spot. "The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party's always right." It elicited a harsh response from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which questioned Pryor's sincerity in his faith. Cotton's campaign, in turn, slammed the NRSC's statements as "bizarre and offensive."

Louisiana

The candidates: Three-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu faces at least three Republican challengers: State Rep. Paul Hollis, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness.

The big issues: Landrieu was one of the last Democratic senators to back the Affordable Care Act, leaving her vulnerable to charges that she could have stopped the bill from going forward. Republicans have also hit Landrieu over her vote to end the filibuster for certain judicial nominees and political appointees. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina continues to haunt the state, making the skyrocketing costs of flood insurance another hot-button topic this election cycle.

The context: Louisiana has an open primary in which all candidates regardless of party square off. If no one reaches a simple majority, a run-off is triggered between the top two candidates. That means Landrieu, whose approval ratings dropped 10 points to 47 percent between May and November of last year, is hoping for the Republicans in the race to keep hammering each other over who is the true conservative. ObamaCare is the main reason Landrieu has seen her numbers fall, and she's tried to insulate herself from the law's problems by sponsoring a bill that would allow people to keep their health-care plans so long as they pay their premiums and meet eligibility requirements. (Roughly 90,000 of her constituents lost their plans.) Like many other deep-red Southern states, Louisiana voted for Mitt Romney by double digits in 2012, giving the GOP hope that this is another seat they can easily pick off. Landrieu's success in the past has hinged on her ability to position herself as a populist who focuses on local Louisiana issues rather than national topics. Republicans will take every opportunity to yoke her to Obama and health-care reform. Distancing herself from the president, while not alienating Louisiana's large black population, will be the key to her re-election.

What the polls say: In a head-to-head matchup, Landrieu beats Cassidy by seven points but falls short of meeting the 50 percent threshold required to avoid the runoff. Maness is polling around 10 percent, which means Cassidy will have the upper hand once the race is down to two, as long as he can pursuade Maness' voters to back him.

The money war: Landrieu has out-fundraised Cassidy, her closest competitor, every quarter and has built up a sizable lead with $6.4 million in the bank. Cassidy has about $4.2 million cash on hand, which is 10 times more than Landrieu's 2008 GOP challenger had raised by this point in the cycle.

The fiercest ad: The Judicial Crisis Network slammed Landrieu in December for her votes on Obama's judicial nominees, saying she "helped change to rules to pack a key court with new liberal judges who will review ... agencies Obama is using to push his unconstitutional job-killing agenda." The television spot, which ran for two weeks, was part of a six-figure ad buy.

Iowa


The candidates: With Sen. Tom Harkin announcing his retirement, Democrats have tapped Rep. Bruce Braley to run for the seat. Five Republicans — U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, state Sen. Jodi Ernst, economics professor Sam Clovis, businessman Mark Jacobs, and car salesman Scott Schaben — are vying for the GOP nomination.

The big issues: ObamaCare, ObamaCare, ObamaCare.

The context: Harkin's retirement leaves the Democrats vulnerable in Iowa. Though Braley is popular in his district, Obama has become very unpopular in the state that jump-started his presidential campaign in 2008. In December, 59 percent of those surveyed by Quinnipiac said they disapproved of Obama's job performance — the lowest rating he's ever gotten among Iowans. Twenty-nine percent said they will use their Senate vote as a proxy against the president. Since Congress went back to work in early January, Braley has pushed for a minimum-wage hike, an effort most of his GOP opponents have assailed as an attack on big business. This race, which is seen as a second-tier pick-up opportunity for Republicans, is a must-win for Democrats if they want to hang on to their Senate majority.

What the polls say: A December Quinnipiac poll shows Braley holding modest leads over all six of his Republican opponents. But the same survey reveals that Iowa voters want Republicans to take back control of the Senate 46 to 41 percent.

The money war: Braley had a successful third quarter last year, raking in $900,000. He's got more than $2.3 million in the bank from 4,500 donors living in all 99 of Iowa's counties. Ernst raised $252,067, while Clovis brought in $75,000. Jacobs has already released his fourth-quarter numbers, revealing he collected $400,000 for his campaign between October and December.

The fiercest ad: The Republican National Committee has launched radio ads across the state essentially calling Braley a liar for his support of the health-care overhaul. "President Obama and Braley said if you like your insurance plan you can keep it under ObamaCare. They lied to you. Big time," the ad intones. "2014 is your chance to hold Braley accountable. Tell him this is one New Year’s resolution you’re sticking to."


Alaska


(Facebook.com/Mark Begich, Facebook.com/Mead Treadwell for United States Senate)

The candidates: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is seeking his second term. So far, three Republicans have announced their candidacies: Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Bush appointee Dan Sullivan, and Joe Miller, the Tea Party favorite who won the GOP nomination in 2010 only to lose to Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign.

The big issues: Republicans will hammer Begich over his support for health-care reform, but a top priority for most Alaskans is energy development because it drives the state economy.

The context: Alaska is a solidly conservative state, and the GOP sees it as a natural place to pick up a seat. Begich owes much of his election to the anti-Republican wave that swept Obama into office in 2008. (The fact that his opponent, Ted Stevens, had also been convicted on corruption charges just before the election also helped. Begich still only won by about 4,000 votes.) The first Democrat elected to the Senate in Alaska since 1974, Begich is trying to distance himself from his party with the tagline "As independent as Alaska." He has been touting his push to expand drilling and energy development as well as his work trying to cut federal spending. His survival will largely depend on who makes it through the Republican primary.

What the polls say: A poll released by American Crossroads, Karl Rove's group, in mid-October showed Begich locked in a virtual tie in head-to-head matchups with Treadwell and Sullivan. The incumbent enjoys a 27-point lead over Miller, who is widely disliked throughout the state.

The money war: Begich has amassed a substantial fundraising lead, bringing in $813,000 in the third quarter of last year and $4.8 million so far this cycle. By comparison, Treadwell's campaign only raised $196,000 between July and September last year.

The fiercest ad: Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, released a television spot in November blaming Begich for insurance premiums rising under ObamaCare. "I trusted the president and Senator Begich.... Now millions are losing their health care.... Costs are going way up," an actress posing as an Alaskan says into the camera. "Senator Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again? It just isn’t fair. Alaska deserves better."
 
Laura Colarusso
Laura Colarusso is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She has previously written for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, the Washington Monthly and The Daily Beast.

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