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First Thoughts: GOP Ups the Ante in Tug-of-War for Senate

<p>The GOP expands its 2014 efforts, increasing the party's odds of winnig back control of the Senate. </p>
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Republicans expand the 2014 map, increasing their chances of winning the Senate… Meanwhile, Democrats still haven’t been able to find top-tier candidates in Kansas and Mississippi… What isn’t going the GOP’s way right now: its brand… More unrest in Ukraine: Is it possible we’ll be talking more about foreign affairs come the fall than many expect?... DNC holds its winter meeting, while RNC is set to announce its finalists to host 2016 convention… Obama to unveil “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative at 3:25 pm ET… Christie to raise money in Boston… Don’t miss Hillary Clinton’s comments on the health-care law last night… And good news and bad news for Lindsey Graham per that Winthrop poll.

Republicans expand the 2014 map, increasing their chances of winning the Senate

So much different news has happened over the last 24 hours (in Arizona, in Ukraine), but we’re leading with this: The Republican odds of picking up the Senate increased after the Denver Post reported that Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) was entering Colorado’s Senate contest to challenge incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO). The move also set off a chain reaction with GOP Senate candidates Ken Buck and Amy Stephens dropping out the race, and Buck is now running for Gardner’s open House seat. (Funny how these things work, huh?) But what Gardner running does is put more seats in the 2014 playing field for Republicans. The GOP no longer has to run the table of red states (Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina) and hope that Democrats aren’t able to pull off an upset in Georgia or Kentucky. Now the GOP has more margin for error by trying to pick off a race in Michigan or Colorado. And everyone is waiting to see if former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) runs for the Senate in New Hampshire, creating another potential pick-up opportunity for GOP. Back in the 2012 presidential race, we constantly pointed out how many more different paths to 270 electoral votes Barack Obama had than Mitt Romney did, which is why we and others always called him the favorite. Well, Senate Republicans have a similar advantage right now -- they have more paths to netting six pickups than Democrats do in blocking that gain. Think about this math: The GOP can lose both Georgia and Kentucky and still find eight Dem-held seats to net the six they need to win the majority.

Meanwhile, Democrats still haven’t been able to find top-tier candidates in Kansas and Mississippi

The Gardner recruitment highlights something else: Democrats so far have been unable to find key recruits in Kansas and Mississippi that could expand the playing field for them if Republicans nominate a flawed candidate for the general election after a potential Tea Party debacle. The Dem path to saving their majority is getting narrower and narrower. Now they need a national recovery more than ever of the Obama brand. Yet speaking of brand issues…

What isn’t going the GOP’s way right now: its brand

So Republicans have a lot going for them so far. An expanded map (now putting Colorado in play). A favorable political environment (see the New York Times/CBS poll). But here’s what should worry them and potentially hearten Democrats: The GOP still has a brand problem, and the recent news out of Arizona only re-emphasized that. Yes, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed the controversial measure that could have allowed businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians, but the entire story was a reminder how -- on some social issues -- today’s Republican Party is out of step with the rest of America. Some of the other recent examples: Mike Huckabee’s comment about Democrats, Uncle Sugar, and women not controlling their libido, and a Virginia state senator appearing to refer to pregnant mothers as a “host” rather than a mother. Never mind the GOP senate candidate in NC yesterday that called raising the minimum wage a “dangerous idea” (see below for more on that). And speaking of the GOP’s brand, here’s another question: Will all the House Republicans running for Senate in 2014 have better luck than their 2012 colleagues? Two years ago, the GOP House members who ran for promotion in the Senate (Rick Berg in North Dakota, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Connie Mack IV in Florida, Todd Akin in Missouri) all lost. So too did the House Republican running for vice president, Paul Ryan. Bottom line: Being a House Republican wasn’t necessarily the best resume, especially with Congress’ approval rating. And the GOP brand problems seem to stick easiest to House Republicans, or at least they have in the past. But will that change in 2014, with Gardner, Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Tom Cotton (R-AR) all running for the Senate this cycle?

More unrest in Ukraine

Two stories out of Ukraine this morning are a reminder that we COULD be talking about a completely different issue matrix come Election Day 2014. Everyone is so sure the main issues will be health care, the economy, or inequality. But what if it’s a six-month standoff with Vladimir Putin? The first news: “Dozens of armed men seized the regional government headquarters and parliament on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula on Thursday and raised the Russian flag,” NBC News reported. The second news: “Viktor F. Yanukovych, the ousted president of Ukraine, declared on Thursday that he remained the lawful president of the country and appealed to Russia to “secure my personal safety from the actions of extremists,” the New York Times adds. Yet don’t miss what Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell yesterday: “President Putin, in a telephone conversation with President Obama just the other day, committed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.And I think that’s incredibly important. It would be very difficult for me to understand how Russia would reconcile its position on Libya, its position on Syria, its warnings against intervention in another country and then not respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and the will of the people there... We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States – this is not Rocky IV, believe me. We don’t see it that way.”

DNC holds its winter meeting, while RNC is set to announce its finalists to host 2016 convention

The Democratic National Committee begins its three-day winter meeting in DC, and on the line-up are speeches by Vice President Joe Biden (at 11:30 am ET today) and President Obama (tomorrow afternoon). Perhaps timed to the start of the DNC meeting, the Republican National Committee will announce the final cities under consideration for the GOP’s 2016 convention at 10:00 am ET via RNC Chair Reince Priebus’ Twitter feed. The DNC has yet to narrow down its field; in fact, it’s just beginning its bidding process.

Obama to unveil “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative

Per NBC’s Kristen Welker, President Obama at 3:25 pm ET will hold an event at the White House to unveil his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative -- to help lift up young minorities. “Building on his Year of Action, this new initiative is another way the President will use his pen and his phone, involving both the private and public sectors, to expand opportunity for Americans,” the White House says.

Christie to raise money in Boston

Also on our schedule today: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is hosting a closed-press RGA fundraiser with Mitt Romney in Boston.

Don’t miss Hillary Clinton’s comments on the health-care law last night

“Hillary Clinton offered a defense of Obamacare – but struck a note of concern for small business owners who’ve complained about mandates required by the law – in a twin set of speeches in Florida on Wednesday. ‘I think we are on the right track in many respects but I would be the first to say if things aren’t working then we need people of good faith to come together and make evidence-based changes,’ Clinton said at the first event,” Politico writes. But do note: Hillary really didn’t say anything different than we’ve heard from President Obama on fixes.

GOP Senate candidate calls minimum wage a “dangerous idea”

Turning back to other 2014 news, Democrats are seizing on this story: “U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis on Wednesday said he opposes President Barack Obama’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage, calling it a ‘dangerous idea.’ The Republican went even further to suggest government shouldn’t set a minimum wage, labeling it an ‘artificial threshold.’” Tillis is viewed as the GOP front-runner to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), and it’s another reminder how Democrats are trying use the minimum wage as a key part of their 2014 playbook.

Good news and bad news for Lindsey Graham

Finally, a recent Winthrop poll out of South Carolina contains good news -- and bad news -- for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) ahead of his primary later this year. The good news: He’s leading the GOP primary getting 45% (though that’s below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a run-off). But here’s the bad news: The poll shows you that this is your GOP electorate in South Carolina – 93% disapprove of Obama’s job, 95% think the nation is headed in the wrong direction (though 67% think South Carolina is headed in the right direction), 63% say it’s unacceptable for having a child without being married, 21% say it’s unacceptable for blacks and whites to inter-marry, and 74% think it’s unacceptable for adults to smoke marijuana. This is a VERY conservative electorate, and Lindsey Graham is running as much against a number (getting that 50%) than running against the rest of the GOP field.

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