The U.S. Capitol on Oct. 2, 2013.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The political stories to watch in 2014

Updated

Congress returns to Washington this week to confront its greatest terror: an election year. As midterm season heats up, here are the biggest political stories to watch:

Red state Democrats

The biggest prize at stake in the 2014 midterms: the Senate, where Republicans have a legitimate shot of taking control. The main reason: a whole bunch of red state Democrats are up for re-election. 

Whether the Democratic majority survives likely depends on how incumbents like Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska can fend off tough Republican challengers. An even more difficult feat might be holding seats opened up by Democratic retirements in other red states like West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota.

The above Democrats were elected in 2008, a banner year for Democrats headlined by President Obama’s landslide victory. This time they face an off-year electorate – usually older, whiter, and more conservative than the one that shows up presidential years – and Obama’s approval ratings in their state are more liability than coattail. 

These Democrats will be a critical bellwether not only for control of the Senate, but the direction of the party in Obama’s second term. Will they abandon the president on health care or other top agenda items if things get ugly and they decide it imperils their re-election?

GOP civil war

Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans seem to enjoy fighting each other as much as they enjoy fighting Democrats. In both 2010 and 2012, Democrats held the Senate through difficult cycles thanks in part to brutal Republican primary fights that produced flawed, sometimes laughably unelectable candidates (see O’Donnell, Christine). This time the stakes are even higher to get it right, since Democrats are expected to enjoy a wealth of Senate pickup opportunities in 2016.

This year, Republican incumbents face a number of challengers from the right. In Mississippi, polls show Senator Thad Cochran in a surprisingly dangerous fight against Chris McDaniels, an insurgent with ties to neo-confederate groups. John Cornyn of Texas, who like Cochran could hardly be considered a moderate, also faces a challenge from tea party Congressman Steve Stockman. In Wyoming, Liz Cheney is running against incumbent Senator Mike Enzi for some reason. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is fending off a primary from businessman Matt Bevin that’s backed by conservative activist groups. Then there’s Georgia, where Republicans are concerned a crowded primary for an open seat might nominate Congressman Paul Broun, who thinks evolution and the big bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

None of these states would necessarily turn Democratic if an anti-establishment conservative won the nomination. But the intensity of the fight will have major implications for governance in 2014 too, since a Republican party fighting off a wave of right-wing challengers is far less likely to cooperate with Democrats in Congress on immigration, the budget, or raising the debt ceiling.

Obamacare

Republicans think they’ve struck gold with the Affordable Care Act’s early struggles, which helped rapidly erase Democrats’ post-shutdown advantage in the polls. But the White House and their allies are growing increasingly confident that the law is starting to work as intended. The website is increasingly functional, millions of Americans have obtained coverage through the law, and Republicans are unsure whether they can continue pushing for repeal alone given that it would throw millions of newly insured Americans off of their coverage. Can the White House turn things around fast enough to stave off an electoral backlash in November?

Rising stars

Every election cycle sends a few candidates into the national spotlight. It’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, few Americans knew incoming Senator-elect Ted Cruz’s name.

This year, Republicans can look forward to electing Mia Love of Utah to Congress, a charismatic African-American candidate who wowed GOP activists in 2012 only to narrowly lose to Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson. Matheson is leaving the House after this year with eyes on the Senate in 2016, leaving Love’s path clear this time. Republicans would love to see Congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, move up the political ladder by defeating Senator Mark Pryor this year.

On the other side of the aisle, McConnell challenger Alison Lundergran Grimes is quickly becoming a favorite of national Democrats. Democrats were also excited to recruit Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, to run for an open Senate seat there. If either wins, you can expect plenty of attention once they arrive in Washington.

The Republican rebuild

After the 2012 election, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus unveiled a detailed report calling on the party to pass immigration reform, soften their stance on gay rights, reach out to black voters, and shed their rich guy image. While Republicans have benefitted politically from Obama’s struggles since then, they’ve yet to make much progress on any of those counts. 2013 ended with immigration reform’s future uncertain, Republicans in Congress fighting to cut food stamp and unemployment benefits, and conservative politicians rushing to defend Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s rants about gays, blacks, and even Japanese Shintoism.

The biggest test for 2014 is likely whether Speaker John Boehner decides to pass sweeping immigration legislation, something that would invite a conservative backlash but might help the party in the long term with Latino and Asian voters. But it’s worth keeping an eye on fledgling attempts by politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul to reposition the party with minorities and working class voters go anywhere as well.

2016 jockeying

The presidential campaign begins in earnest immediately after the midterm elections. Until then, there’s plenty of room for the potential candidates to position themselves. Chris Christie has moved rapidly to consolidate support as the GOP establishment candidate and he’s far and away the party’s strongest general election nominee in early polling. Will likely tea party candidates, like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, find a way to take him down a peg or a popular base issue they can seize on to outshine him? Will other, more centrist candidates, like Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels start laying the groundwork for a run of their own? Can candidates like Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who have a foot in both camps, set themselves up as dark horse challengers?

While the Democratic side is more stable thanks Hillary Clinton’s dominant early position, there’s still plenty to watch there too. As the party’s base focuses more on income inequality, will a populist like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren or former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer move closer to a run? Will Joe Biden, who has long hinted at another presidential run, get more aggressive about branding himself as a Clinton alternative?

The state of the states

Congress may be gridlocked, but in states around the country it’s just the opposite. Republicans swept into complete control of numerous state governments in 2010 and have since used that power to gerrymander Congressional seats, weaken unions, restrict abortion providers, block Medicaid expansion, crack down on illegal immigration, and expand gun rights. In some blue states, Democrats have used their own expanded influence to legalize gay marriage, pass new gun control laws, and try to integrate undocumented immigrants.

This year Democrats are hoping to undo some of the damage from 2010, especially in bluer states like Pennsylvania, where Republican Governor Tom Corbett is vulnerable, Florida, where Governor Rick Scott faces a tough (and costly) re-election, and Maine, where tea partier Paul LePage’s colorful outbursts have helped knock down his approval rating. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has already fought off a recall, could try to turn his re-election into a springboard for a presidential bid if he succeeds. On the other side, Republicans are hoping they can unseat flagging Democratic governor Pat Quinn in Illinois.  

The Daily Rundown, 12/27/13, 9:58 AM ET

The no. 1 political question going into 2014

In his First Reads of the morning, Chuck Todd talks about the highs and lows of the 2013 political year and looks ahead to how the 2014 House and Senate…

Alison Lundergan Grimes, Brian Schweitzer, House Of Representatives, House Republicans, Mitch McConnell, Senate, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and Ted Cruz

The political stories to watch in 2014

Updated