Seven months out from Election Day, there are a few things we can say with a high degree of confidence: 2014 is shaping up to be a good year for the GOP. Republicans have a decent shot of taking the Senate and possibly padding their House majority. And Obamacare is the biggest, perhaps the dominant, issue in the battle for Congress.
Beyond that broad-brush picture, it’s anyone’s guess.
As the days fly by, though, the hazy outlook will become clearer, and more clues will emerge about whether this will be simply a good year for the GOP or a rout. The policy terms on which the election is fought will be increasingly cemented in place. And some important intraparty struggles — especially within the GOP — will begin to shake out well before Election Day.
Here’s a look at 10 key questions that will be answered between now and Nov. 4 — and will go a long way toward deciding the election.
Can Georgia and North Carolina Republicans avert disaster?
The best Democratic recruit this cycle is Michelle Nunn in Georgia, a first-time candidate who didn’t vote for Obamacare and can run as a pro-business moderate. She’s well positioned to win the open seat of retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss if a flawed Republican emerges as her opponent.
Rep. Paul Broun is the candidate who most worries national GOP leaders as a Todd-Akin-in-waiting, but he has run a surprisingly disciplined campaign and is not the only Republican who might blow it.
The top two finishers in a seven-way primary on May 20 will face off in a July 22 runoff. Watch for national money to pour in on both sides during those two months and for Democrats to boost their preferred opponent, similar to the way Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) ran ads calling Akin “too conservative” before his primary.
The Republican establishment also worries about North Carolina, fearing that a tea party or libertarian candidate may prevail in the May 6 primary to take on Sen. Kay Hagan. American Crossroads is spending $1 million on ads promoting state House Speaker Thom Tillis, its favorite.
Can Thad Cochran survive?
The Mississippi Senate primary on June 3 could be either Waterloo for the tea party or a catastrophic setback for establishment Republicans that triggers a rare, competitive Deep South Senate race.
Democrats hope incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, will be the Dick Lugar of 2014, a venerated political fixture denied the GOP nomination by an ultra-ideological opponent who falters in November. They’ve recruited a former congressman, Travis Childers, just in case Cochran loses his primary.
Some Republicans fear the same outcome. Mississippi GOP leader Henry Barbour warned that Cochran’s primary challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, could be “the next Richard Mourdock or Sharron Angle,” two ghosts of Senate races past who threw away winnable races for the GOP. A series of McDaniel comments, from his hesitation on the issue of Hurricane Katrina relief to provocative comments on race and homosexuality he made as a radio host, have fueled Democratic dreams of a dogfight in the fall.
McDaniel supporters — as well as some powerful Republicans in Washington — doubt that any Democrat could win a statewide federal election in Mississippi. In any case, Cochran’s fate on primary night will send ripples through the GOP and potentially put a new Senate race on the map.
Can SCF beat McConnell — or anyone?
There’s no intra-GOP collision this year more public than the clash between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Conservatives Fund, the rogue group backing an array of combative primary challengers to GOP incumbents.
McConnell and the GOP establishment have vowed to wipe out SCF. The group, led by former Jim DeMint aide Matt Hoskins, now faces enormous pressure to come out of primary season with a big win.
The candidates SCF has endorsed in Kentucky, Louisiana and Kansas appear to have fizzled (Kansas radiologist Milton Wolf was revealed to have posted X-rays of gunshot victims on the Internet). The last remaining endorsee who may knock off an incumbent is McDaniel, the opponent of Cochran.
SCF has endorsed in open-seat races — Nebraska and Oklahoma — but failure to oust a sitting senator would leave the group struggling to explain why its expensive war on the establishment was worth it.
Does the Supreme Court throw out the contraception mandate?
During oral arguments last month, a majority of justices sounded critical of the federal government’s mandate that companies like Hobby Lobby cover employee contraception despite religious objections. The swing vote could be Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wondered aloud about unraveling the whole health care law if the contraception mandate gets thrown out.
The court’s decision, likely to be announced near the end of the term in June, could inflame the culture wars. Upholding the mandate would incense social conservatives, who might be more likely to mobilize in hopes of a legislative fix next Congress. Striking it down would give Democrats an issue to galvanize women’s groups and maybe even female voters. Either way, there will be a summer debate about birth control.
Will Chris Christie be GOP surrogate-in-chief?
Say this for the New Jersey governor: The home-state mess known as Bridgegate hasn’t undercut Christie’s fundraising.
Under Christie’s leadership, the Republican Governors Association has collected big checks at a better than healthy clip: On Friday, the RGA announced it collected $23.5 million in the first three months of 2014, $11 million more than its Democratic counterpart.
If Christie remains a high-dollar draw, less clear is whether he’ll be an effective public face for Republicans this fall. A few hours after the RGA announced its fundraising haul last week, ABC News reported that a grand jury had convened to investigate the Fort Lee traffic scandal. At RGA events in Florida, Illinois and elsewhere, Christie has been dogged by Democratic hecklers and demonstrators.
Republicans currently expect Christie to drape his arm around numerous governors and candidates this fall — some privately acknowledge, however, that depends on the status of the Justice Department and legislative investigations into Christie and his top aides. The GOP’s 2014 fortunes won’t rise and fall with Christie, but the public face and rhetoric of the fall campaign could shift depending on his home-state travails.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson wrote in an email that Christie is a highly “effective” fundraiser and spokesman for GOP governors. “Throughout 2014, Governor Christie will have an aggressive schedule of campaigning and fundraising to re-elect GOP Governors who have transformed their states through messages of reform and success,” Thompson wrote.
How much will insurance rates go up this summer?
Republicans hope continuing dissatisfaction with Obamacare fuels big gains; Democrats say frustration with the law is already priced into polls and things won’t get worse. The next test of who is right will come this summer, when insurance companies announce how much they will increase premiums for 2015. These calculations are based on how many people sign up and how old or sick they are.
If rates go much higher, there will be weeks of negative headlines that highlight how the Affordable Care Act is not so affordable.
The rate change announcements would typically come as early as June, but they’ll trickle in later this year because open enrollment didn’t start until November. A number of states make rate filings public; in some cases, insurers may announce them. Any increases over 10 percent get reported and reviewed, which keeps the story alive.
Will AFP keep up the air assault?
So far, the Koch-funded nonprofit Americans for Prosperity has defined the 2014 air war, spending tens of millions of dollars to batter Democrats for supporting the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans say Koch-world has wisely taken a lesson from 2012: Early spending matters a lot, when the airwaves are uncluttered and the cost of TV commercials is relatively low.
Here’s the part that makes some Republicans anxious: What if the Kochs’ aerial bombardment tapers off?
AFP funds extensive field operations as well as TV ads, so there’s some doubt about whether saturation-level advertising is here for the duration. The GOP hopes so, but Charles and David Koch are aggressive businessmen whose advisers know that the efficiency of outside ads goes down over time.
Without getting into nuts-and-bolts tactical detail, AFP president Tim Phillips said the group’s heavy-duty health care advocacy is here to stay. “The Obamacare accountability efforts will continue and continue indefinitely, despite the president’s admonition that the debate is over,” Phillips said.
Whatever the Kochs do on TV, candidates will have to step up at some point to sell themselves. The question is whether they’ll enjoy a massive outside spending disparity at their backs when they do it.
Where — and how — does Tom Steyer spend his millions?
Tom Steyer is the closest thing to a Democratic Koch brother. The hedge fund billionaire has vowed to spend and raise as much as $100 million in 2014 to promote a green climate agenda.
It remains to be seen how Steyer will direct that money. Strategists expect him to focus on a handful of trophy races, seeking to make an example of candidates on climate much as he did in Virginia’s 2013 governor’s race.
If Steyer’s money won’t be a bulwark for Democrats up and down the ballot, it’ll be a huge boon to a few. He’s said to be interested in elections including the Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Maine gubernatorial races and Senate races in Iowa and Colorado, where environmentalist Democrat Mark Udall is seeking a second term.
Steyer adviser Chris Lehane wouldn’t detail his 2014 targets but said Steyer would spend generously both “on national races that impact the Senate as well as state races around the country.”
Does Joe Miller run as an independent?
Even in a great climate, Republicans have a demonstrated knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Most realistic paths to a Senate majority go through Alaska, where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich barely won in 2008. The GOP establishment is coalescing around former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, but Joe Miller, who upset Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary only to lose to her in a write-in campaign, is also running again.
Miller does not completely rule out running as an independent. “We have not made any public statement with respect to that,” he said in an interview during last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “We’ve made it clear that we support the platform of the party, we’re running for the Republican nomination and we’re leaving it at that.”
Miller himself cited a poll that showed him pulling 10 percent as a third-party candidate, more than enough to make him a spoiler.
Will we know the result on Nov. 4?
It seems likely that the Louisiana Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu faces a tough challenge from Rep. Bill Cassidy, will not be decided until a Dec. 6 runoff. The state does not have primaries, and a candidate needs more than 50 percent to win outright. Georgia also has a provision for a runoff if no one breaks 50 percent in November.
If Republicans pick up five Senate seats elsewhere on Election Day, control of the Senate could come down to a monthlong, low-turnout dogfight in the bayou.