First Thoughts: 5 Midterm Storylines to Watch


The dome of the US Capitol is seen January 4, 2013 on a cold day in Washington. KAREN BLEIER / AFP - Getty Images

Five Senate midterm stories to watch between now and Election Day: 1. The red-state Dem incumbents… 2. The GOP incumbents facing primaries… 3. All the women running in ’14… 4. All the House Republicans running for the Senate… 5. And the famous last names (and political dynasties)… We’re not in Kansas anymore: NYT reports that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) doesn’t appear to be living in the state he represents… Schumer calls Boehner’s bluff on immigration?... Michael Sam to become biggest NFL (and cultural) story from now until Draft Day.,. Did Christie’s aides really not run that Wildstein memo by the governor?... And on Tuesday’s mayoral race in San Diego.

Five midterm stories to watch

Nine months to go until Election Day 2014, the main storyline to watch is whether or not Republicans pick up the six Senate seats needed to win back control of that chamber -- a realistic feat in this political environment. But within that main storyline are five other stories to watch from now to November:

  1. The red-state Dem incumbents: Perhaps the top reason why Republicans have a realistic shot at winning back the Senate is the GOP-leaning playing field. They’re taking on Democrats Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina -- all states President Obama lost in 2012. Not surprisingly, Politico reports that these incumbents don’t want the president to campaign for them this year. Then throw in the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia -- again, states where the president isn’t a positive, even in a good political environment for Democrats. It’s why so many observers believe the GOP has such a good shot at gaining the majority; it doesn’t have to win a SINGLE Democratic-held seat in a so-called blue state.
  2. The GOP incumbents facing primaries: In 2014, we will see at least six Republican primaries featuring establishment Senate incumbents versus Tea Party challengers. Most of these contests are taking place in safe Republican states, so the winner might not affect the general election. But they do further the storyline that there’s an ongoing ideological fight inside the Republican Party that still hasn’t been resolved. How these races go (if they all go in one direction) will set the tone for the Republican presidential primary. One of these primaries -- Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) vs. Milton Wolf -- was in the news on Friday (more on that below). But unlike 2010 or 2012, Democrats don’t have the nominees-in-waiting in most of these states to take advantage of any upsets. They are still recruiting in Mississippi, so we shall see.
  3. All the women running in 2014: If Democrats hold on to the Senate, it will be due to its female incumbents and candidates -- Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, plus Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Grimes in Kentucky. We’ve seen “Year of the Woman” in past election cycles, but could this be the cycle of “Year of the Woman Saving the Democratic Senate?”
  4. All the House Republicans running for the Senate: Meanwhile, if Republicans win the Senate, it will be due to all the House Republicans running -- Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Steve Daines in Montana, Bill Cassidy in Louisiana, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, plus the House GOP members running in Georgia. In 2012, House Republicans had an abysmal record running for the Senate (think Todd Akin in Missouri, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Denny Rehberg in Montana, and Connie Mack in Florida). So after last October’s government shutdown, see this warm, fuzzy TV ad Daines is airing in Montana that tries to soften the image of a House Republican running in ’14.
  5. All the famous last names (and political dynasties) in ’14: Finally, there are all the famous last names running for the Senate and other offices. This election season, there will be a Nunn on the ballot in Georgia (as in daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn), as well as a Carter (as in Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter’s grandson running for governor). Other 2014 candidates with famous last names include Gwen Graham (former Sen. Bob Graham’s daughter who’s running for the House), George P. Bush (Jeb’s son who is running for Texas land commissioner), Clay Pell (grandson of Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell, father of the Pell Grant), and the list goes on. What’s more, these new folks are on top of the sons/daughters already serving and running for re-election this year: Mary Landrieu (daughter of Moon Landrieu); Mark Begich in Alaska (his father was a senator); Mark Pryor in Arkansas; Jerry Brown in California; Andrew Cuomo in New York; and the Udall cousins (Mark and Tom).

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Speaking of GOP Senate incumbents facing primary challenges… In an article that created plenty of buzz on Friday afternoon, the New York Times reported that longtime Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) -- facing a Tea Party challenge this year -- doesn’t appear to be living in the state he represents. “In an interview, the three-term senator acknowledged that he did not have a home of his own in Kansas. The house on a country club golf course that he lists as his voting address belongs to two longtime supporters and donors … and he says he stays with them when he is in the area. He established his voting address there the day before his challenger in the August primary, Milton Wolf, announced his candidacy last fall, arguing that Mr. Roberts was out of touch with his High Plains roots.” Roberts’ office issued this response, per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell: “He owns a residence in Dodge City Kansas that currently has tenants so he also rents a place to stay in Dodge City Kansas when he travels there. The story is misleading and ridiculous.” Nevertheless, the story is reminiscent of what happened to former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), whose residency issues helped contribute to his primary loss in 2012 -- a Senate race Republicans ultimately lost.

Schumer calls Boehner's bluff?

Turning from the 2014 midterms to news out of Capitol Hill, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Sunday issued this response to House Speaker John Boehner's argument that House Republicans are resistant to immigration reform because they can't trust President Obama. “Let's enact the law this year, but simply not let it actually start ‘til 2017, after President Obama's term is over,” Schumer said on “Meet the Press.” More: "You don't trust Obama? Enact the law now, but put it into effect in 2017 and we can get something real done for America." But in a statement to NBC News, Boehner’s office calls Schumer’s response “impractical.” Says Boehner spokesman Michael Steel: "The suggestion is entirely impractical, since it would totally eliminate the President's incentive to enforce immigration law for the remainder of his term." But the bottom line here: Republicans have no interest in taking up an issue in an election year that divides them. It’s Politics 101.. But if they think getting this done in 2015 is going to be any easier will depend on just how quickly and active the presidential primary season is.


Michael Sam to become the biggest NFL story from now until Draft Day

Outside of politics (and the Olympics), the biggest story in the country is the news that All-American college football player Michael Sam -- an upcoming NFL Draft prospect -- announced he’s gay, making him the first potentially openly gay NFL football player. We mention the story because of its huge cultural impact. Who drafts him? Does he not get drafted? (Sports Illustrated spoke to several anonymous NFL executives, who said that Sam’s announcement would hurt his draft stock.) It’s worth remember that NBA player Jason Collins, who said he was gay last year, isn’t currently on any NBA roster this year.

Did Christie’s aides really not run that Wildstein memo by the governor?

In New Jersey, remember that widely lampooned memo from the Christie administration hitting former Port Authority official David Wildstein (as well as the New York Times)? Well, on Friday, Politico had a piece with Christie aides disassociating their boss -- the governor – from that memo. “Christie’s aides did not run the document – which took the extraordinary step of highlighting incidents from Wildstein’s high school days – by the governor before they sent it out, according to two people familiar with the matter. Instead, someone tucked the high school lines into a daily briefing email to the governor’s supporters, and blasted it out earlier than planned. Another round of unflattering news coverage ensued.” Even if you take Christie’s office at its own word here, that means that Christie’s staff is doing things (creating the Fort Lee traffic jam, sending out this memo) without his sign-off. What’s worse: A governor who has knowledge of these things, or a governor who can’t control his own staff? By the way, why wait nearly a week to get this alternative version out there?

Tuesday’s mayoral election in San Diego

Tomorrow, San Diego voters head to polls to elect a new mayor to replace Bob Filner (D), who resigned his post after accusations of sexual harassment. As the San Diego Union-Tribune writes, the contest between David Alvarez (D) and Kevin Faulconer (R) is one of contrasts. “Alvarez, 33, is a pro-union Democrat who supports increasing the minimum wage, boosting developer fees to pay for affordable housing projects and asking for voter approval to sell bonds to pay for infrastructure repairs. All of which Faulconer opposes.” More: “Faulconer, 47, is a pro-business Republican who supports putting certain city services up for competitive bid with the private sector, replacing pensions with 401(k)-style plans for most new city hires and financing the new convention center expansion with a hotelier-approved surcharge on hotel guests. All of which Alvarez opposes.” A robo-poll, which doesn’t meet NBC’s methodological standards, finds that the race is a dead heat. If Faulconer wins, San Diego will be one of the largest cities in the country with a GOP mayor (most big-city mayors are Democrats). But if Alvarez wins – even after the Filner mess – it means that demographics are truly destiny in California.

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC