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GOP Faces Early Challenge in Bid to Re-take Senate

<p>First Thoughts: Seven GOP senators face Tea Party primary challengers starting in March and the party’s hopes of winning back the Senate could rest on the results.</p>

GOP’s 2014 primary reason is about to begin… The good news for the GOP here: These races aren’t taking place in blue or purple states… Is doing something in Syria better than nothing?... Obama to talk about raising fuel-efficiency standards for trucks at 11:20 am ET… Better late than never: Obama White House finally responds on 5th anniversary of stimulus -- after a flurry of GOP responses criticizing it… Democrats: “We want to fix health care; Republicans want to repeal it”… Chris Christie Watch: NJ governor heads to New York City for NRSC event… And Republicans borrow a page from the Obama 2012 playbook.

GOP’s 2014 primary season is about to begin

Two weeks from today, the first of at least six Republican primaries featuring establishment Senate incumbents versus Tea Party challengers will take place in Texas, with Sen. John Cornyn taking on Rep. Steve Stockman (plus a host of other GOPers). And the storyline we’ll be watching is the same one from 2010 and 2012: It’s hard for the GOP to win back the Senate when its best candidates can’t win their primaries. Indeed, Republicans might already control the Senate today -- or would have an all-but-certain prospect come Nov. 2014 -- had Ken Buck (Colorado), Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Todd Akin (Missouri), and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) NOT won their primaries in the last two Senate cycles. So Republicans’ chances of winning back the Senate in 2014 could go up or down depending how these primaries turn out.

The good news for the GOP

These races aren’t taking place in blue or purple states: The good news for Republicans this cycle is that these intra-party fights are taking place in safe (or at least GOP-leaning) states, so the winner might not affect the general election everywhere -- with the key exceptions of Georgia and Kentucky. Democrats are still recruiting in Kansas and Mississippi in search of another Joe Donnelly. Here are the primaries we’ll be watching, including one other key open Senate seat:

  • Sen. John Cornyn vs. Steve Stockman in Texas (March 4)
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vs. Matt Bevin in Kentucky (May 20)
  • Crowded GOP primary in Georgia to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (May 20) -- Sen. Thad Cochran vs. Chris McDaniel in Mississippi (June 3) -- Sen. Lindsey Graham vs. a crowded field in South Carolina (June 10) -- Sen. Pat Roberts vs. Milton Wolf in Kansas (Aug. 5) -- Sen. Lamar Alexander vs. Joe Carr in Tennessee (Aug. 7)

Breaking down the upcoming GOP primaries

Mississippi’s Cochran is seen as the most vulnerable, while Cornyn is probably the safest; McConnell is the most high profile (and has a tough general election fight); the rules in South Carolina might make Lindsey Graham more vulnerable than he should be because if he doesn’t get 50% in the primary, he’s forced into a runoff; and Pat Roberts’ challenger, Milton Wolf (a distant Obama cousin on his mom’s side), has been hammering Roberts for residing in Virginia, not Kansas. Compounding Roberts’ issues is the fact that his primary is in August, a notoriously low-turnout time of year. Democrats don’t really have the candidates in place to take advantage of Tea Party upsets in most of these states. That said, the DSCC is actively recruiting candidates in Mississippi and Kansas, but they have given up on finding a candidate South Carolina, even though that state’s gubernatorial race is going to be competitive.

Is doing something in Syria better than nothing?

Turning from the midterms to foreign affairs, the Wall Street Journal is the latest to report that the Obama White House is reconsidering its options in Syria’s civil war. “The Obama administration, exasperated by stalled talks over Syria and seeking ways to pressure the regime and its Russian allies, plans to revisit options ranging from expanding efforts to train and equip moderate rebels to setting up no-fly zones, according to officials briefed on the deliberations.” Here is the question the White House is pondering, especially given that there is no stomach for military intervention: Is doing SOMETHING better than NOTHING? Or can SOMETHING actually turn out to be worse? The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen opts for the former course. “[Obama] can make all the speeches he wants, but his confusion and indecision is what other leaders notice and what history will remember. Now, so very late, he has asked for options. Here’s one: Do something!” That’s the message the president is hearing from some of his closest advisers, as well as from folks on the outside -- you have to do SOMETHING. One thing the West Wing is trying to manage better on Syria this time, as opposed to what happened last time, is to allow expectations to get out of hand. So far, in response to every report that the White House is reconsidering its Syria policy, the response is “this is not extraordinary, it’s something the president is always doing.” Translation: They want a “nothing to see here” response for a while so they don’t get caught up in a new drumbeat for military action.

Obama to talk about raising fuel-efficiency standards for trucks

At 11:20 am ET, President Obama gives a speech at a Safeway distribution center in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he gives a speech on raising fuel-efficiency standards for trucks, NBC’s Kristen Welker reports. “The president will direct the EPA and the Department of Transportation to develop and issue the next phase of medium- and heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards by March 2016,” a White House official says, per Welker. “Safeway has been a leader in improving trucking efficiency. The company participates in EPA's SmartWay public-private partnership and has improved the efficiency of its trucking fleet by investing in cleaner, more efficient trucks and trailers, with improved aerodynamics, more efficient tires and larger capacity trailers.” Later in the day, at 2:50 pm, Obama meets at the White House with African-American civil-rights leaders.

Better late than never

First thing this past Monday morning, we saw a flurry of statements and commentary from Republicans criticizing the stimulus on its five-year anniversary. But we didn’t hear a peep from Democrats or the Obama White House, even though they arguably could have a good story to tell (just look at the unemployment rate, job creation, and GDP from then to now).Finally, at 1:00 pm ET yesterday, the White House released a blog post touting what it says are the successes of the stimulus. And tomorrow, Vice President Biden heads to Granite City, IL to mark the stimulus’ five-year anniversary. But the relative silence from Democrats -- at least compared with the shouting from Republicans -- highlights this puzzle in the Obama Era: How can a skilled communicator and campaigner like President Obama lose the message war when it comes to things like the stimulus or health care? A possible answer: You’re going to lose that message war when your side doesn’t even try to respond -- or respond as forcefully as the opposition does. It’s a small example that highlights a larger problem, one that Democrats on the Hill have become accustomed to even if they aren’t happy about it.

Democrats: “We want to fix health care; Republicans want to repeal it”

Also on Monday, the New York Times reported how congressional Democrats are trying to play defense on health care -- by arguing that they want to fix the health law, while Republicans are looking to repeal it. “[P]arty leaders have decided on an aggressive new strategy to address the widespread unease with the health care law, urging Democratic candidates to talk openly about the law’s problems while also offering their own prescriptions to fix them… A memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee distributed to candidates and consultants suggested possible lines of attack, such as accusing a Republican who voted to repeal the health law of wanting ‘to go back to the days when insurance companies could charge women more than men for the same coverage, and treat pregnancy as a pre-existing condition.’” But this is a risky strategy for Democrats: When you agree with your opponents’ attack – “Hey, there are problems with the health-care law” – you might be making it hard for it ever to be viewed positively.

Christie Watch

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in New York City tonight, where he addresses a closed-press retreat for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The latest reporting on “Bridgegate” via MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki: “[A] Port Authority police officer with long-time ties to Gov. Christie drove and exchanged text messages with one of the political appointees, David Wildstein, as he was overseeing the traffic snarl last September. Port Authority police Lt. Thomas ‘Chip’ Michaels grew up with Christie in Livingston, N.J., and in recent years coached one of the governor’s children in youth hockey. Michaels is posted to the PAPD’s George Washington Bridge command. Michaels’ brother, Jeffrey, is a powerful Republican lobbyist in Trenton who was a high-level adviser to Christie’s successful 2009 campaign… On Monday, Christie issued a statement making it clear that he has a relationship with both men, while claiming that he has never discussed the lane closures with them. ‘The governor has never had any conversations with either Jeff or Chip Michaels on this topic,’ a Christie spokesman said in an email.”

Republicans borrow a page from the Obama 2012 playbook

Say you’re a Republican governor running for re-election who is facing a lower unemployment rate but an economy that’s still hardly humming. Say you have an ardent base of supporters but an equally fervent opposition. What do you do? Well, you borrow a page from the Obama 2012 playbook. Just check out this new TV ad the Republican Governors Association is airing in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, where Gov. Scott Walker is up for re-election. “While families here struggle to find work, [Mary] Burke’s family business outsourced jobs to China,” the ad goes. “Waste, mismanagement, fewer jobs. Mary Burke would take Wisconsin backwards.” Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Democratic Party is charging that the state -- under Walker’s tenure -- “led the nation in a new unemployment claims for the week ending in Feb. 1.”

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