The battle for Congress won’t fully engage until next year, but it sure looks like election season now as political activity explodes this summer at America’s county fairs, town halls and campaign fundraisers.
From Alaska to West Virginia, what’s 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 he’d 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 Nunn’s 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 House of Representatives, where Republicans have a 234 to 200 majority (there’s 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 incumbent’s party.
"This doesn’t 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 don’t 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 there’s any issue that could spark a new Republican resurgence, it might be that same law.
By the fall of 2014, the law’s 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 they’re 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 nation’s estimated 11 million immigrants who already are here illegally.
The issue is likely to reverberate this month, with both sides of the debate eager to make their views known as lawmakers meet voters in their districts and around their states. But Congress is expected to deal with the issue well before the election, and unlike health care, it doesn’t directly affect the daily lives of most constituents.
That leaves Senate and House races with two potential themes that might emerge: a referendum on President Barack Obama, and a test of who best understands and can remedy local concerns.
Here’s a look at the most closely watched Senate races:
McConnell is used to tight races; he’s won with more than 55 percent of the vote only once. The wild card is how good a candidate Grimes proves to be. She’ll have strong backing from the Democratic Party, which has made McConnell its top Senate target.
“Mitch McConnell is the reason for Washington’s partisan political dysfunction,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Running against Obama in a state where the president got under 40 percent of the vote last year might help McConnell.
"Will people really believe Grimes is not going to be a surrogate for Obama” or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked Louisville-based Republican consultant Ted Jackson.
Pryor is arguably the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent. Obama got 36.9 percent of the vote in Arkansas last year, and the state has been trending Republican for years. Cotton is considered an especially attractive candidate. The freshman congressman is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he gets high marks from conservatives.
Schweitzer’s decision was a stunner, and since then at least four prominent Democrats also have bowed out of the race. In a sparsely populated state, a candidate’s personal touch with voters tends to make a difference.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich won his first term in 2008 with 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race and he’s been a Republican target for years. Duffy of The Cook Political Report said, “One of Begich’s advantages is that he’s very Alaska-first.”
The Republican field is still in flux, making the race hard to handicap. Former Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee, has been mentioned as a possible contender.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has never had an easy time winning election and is likely to get a close race again.
“It’s a Republican state,” said Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “The president even in his brightest days has not been popular there.”
The Tar Heel State is a bigger question mark for Republicans. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan will be running for re-election on ground that Obama narrowly won in 2008 and narrowly lost last year. “It’s a real swing state,” Duffy said.
West Virginia and South Dakota
Veteran Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of a former governor, is vying for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who’s retiring after three decades on Capitol Hill. In South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, is seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat. Obama lost the state last year by nearly 20 percentage points.
As in Montana, Democrats are having trouble recruiting candidates in both states.
While a long shot for the Democrats – since Obama won 45.4 percent of the vote there last year – Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a popular Democrat, entered the race last month and is about even with major Republican challengers.
Gonzales saw three factors affecting the race: whether Nunn is an effective candidate, who the Republican candidate will be and whether Democrats can produce a huge turnout.