With West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller announcing his retirement on Friday following a long political career, things are looking up for Republicans in the midterms, as the door now opens for Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, who has already declared her candidacy. If Capito, the daughter of a former governor, is successful, she will be the state’s first GOP senator since 1958.
Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, is also in the running, but Rockefeller’s popularity has been fading, and Rahall will have a lot of political baggage to carry in order to win. Rockefeller has fought with the state’s mining industry over the future of coal, and he is a loyal supporter of President Barack Obama, who isn’t popular in West Virginia.
“The Republicans have an opportunity here certainly,” said Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University.
Opportunities are plentiful next year for Republicans if the right candidates are selected and the political atmosphere turns in their favor.
There are a number of important issues that could end up shaping the narrative as the midterm election draws closer. Chief among them is the budget and fiscal matters, along with Medicare and Social Security, immigration, and gun control.
“The whole political process is highly volatile,” Whalen said. “It’s going to be determined by what happens in the next couple of months. A grand bargain on fiscal issues, immigration and gun control will shape the political dialogue. If people like the answers, that will determine how they are going to vote.”
“Voters are going to want answers,” he added. “These are long-term vesting problems that need to be addressed now.”
Twenty Democratic senators are up for re-election next year, as opposed to just 13 of their Republican counterparts. Many of those seats are either Republican-leaning or swing states.
Vulnerable Democrats include Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, to name a few.
And with Obama nominating Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, to be the next Secretary of State, it is almost as if Democrats are giving away safe seats -- such as Kerry's.
“Democrats are a bit cocky here,” Whalen said.
GOP Can Drive The Narrative
Republicans need to be careful now to shape the narrative to their liking. With the economy recovering at a slow, if steady, pace, the GOP can focus its rhetoric on the slow pace of the economy's improvement under the Democrats, who have been in power following the 2008 global economic meltdown. However, if Republicans are going to press that button, they will need to ensure that they are not viewed as “obstructionists” in the upcoming debt ceiling and budget talks.
“The Republicans have to come across as working with the President and willing to compromise,” Whalen said. “'It’s my way or the highway' is not going to go over well with voters, at least by what they have shown in the past.”
But compromise, which seems to be somewhat of a dirty word for the GOP, especially in the House, could come back to haunt Republicans. One of the victims could be Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who barely won in his last election, back in 2008, and will seek another term. McConnell may have helped pull the nation away from the fiscal cliff earlier this month, but the competition for his seat could be fierce, and challengers could fault him for compromising. Those who have reportedly expressed interest include actress Ashley Judd.
“McConnell is interesting. He could lose his seat,” Whalen said. “He may be seen as too compromising. He brokered the deal [with Vice President Joe Biden]. I can see someone like him being very vulnerable.”