WASHINGTON -- The battle for Congress wont fully engage until next year, but it sure looks like election season now as political activity explodes this summer at Americas county fairs, town halls and campaign fundraisers.
From Alaska to West Virginia, whats happening around the country as lawmakers spend a month back home might shape the 2014 political map.
Wyoming, for instance, where quiet workhorse Sen. Michael Enzi was expected to coast to a fourth term, was way off the political radar until Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, decided to challenge him for the Republican nomination.
Nor was Kentucky a particularly hot spot, despite Democrats eagerness to deny Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell another term. Today, though, the state is a political caldron, after Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes jumped in the race and suddenly was even with the five-term incumbent in one poll.
Other races faced similar upheavals.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was a Democratic star in the making until he decided last month not to seek the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor knew hed have a tough time, but the entry of Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., into the race might make his uphill climb even steeper. In Georgia, Michelle Nunns Senate candidacy has given the Democrats a rare chance in the Deep South.
The most closely watched contests involve Senate seats. Republicans are expected to need a net gain of six to win control in the next Congress. At this point, West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana are all seen as good bets to go from blue to red. The GOP would need to win just three more and hold on to seats in Kentucky and Georgia.
The three could come from Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and possibly Iowa. Republicans are buoyant.
The Democratic majority is in serious trouble, Rob Collins, the National Republican Senatorial Committees executive director, wrote in a memo last month.
The House of Representatives, where Republicans have a 234 to 200 majority (theres one vacancy), appears unlikely to flip to the Democrats, especially in the sixth year of the Obama administration. Sixth years often mean trouble for the presidential incumbents party.
"This doesnt look like a wave election," said Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert at the University of Kansas. "You need a huge issue, like health care, to make it a wave election, and I dont see that so far."
Outrage over the 2010 health care law helped Republicans elect 87 freshmen to the House that year and win control of the chamber. If theres any issue that could spark a new Republican resurgence, it might be that same law.
By the fall of 2014, the laws key provision requiring most Americans to obtain insurance coverage or pay a penalty will have been in effect nearly a year. If people are confused, think their own health care is suffering or think theyre paying more, Democrats might pay a price.
In close races, "health care implementation will be important," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
So might immigration. The Senate passed sweeping legislation last month that would toughen border security while creating a 13-year path to citizenship for the nations estimated 11 million immigrants who already are here illegally.