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Races to watch: Will Obamacare sink Democrats in 2014?

Three years Obama admitted that his party took a “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Republicans are setting their sights on another political wave in 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act at the White House, Dec. 3, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act at the White House, Dec. 3, 2013.

Three years after President Obama admitted that his party took a “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Republicans are setting their sights on another political wave in 2014. It’s a new battle, but the GOP is using the same weapon: public skepticism over Obamacare.

In 2010, Republicans rode a wave of frustration over the economy and health-care overhaul, recapturing control of the House of Representatives. This time around, they’re focused on keeping that majority and looking toward gains in the Senate – and they’ll rely on the bungled rollout to fuel voter support.

As the hobbled website becomes more functional, the president is offering more vocal praise for his signature domestic achievement. But some Democrats are keenly aware that the program’s poor debut could weigh them down in November. It’s already helped drag Obama’s approval ratings to a new low and distracted from perceived GOP failures during the shutdown.

Republicans have to score six seats to regain control of the Senate. Democrats would have to muster a net-gain of 17 seats to wrestle back power in the lower chamber.

As the key battles for that control begin to unfold, here are seven contests to watch in 2014.

ArkansasDemocratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his GOP challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, are already locked in a bitter air war in the Razorback state that began more than a year out -- and health-care reform is figuring visibly into their spat.

Pryor has long been seen as the most vulnerable sitting Democratic senator, especially in a state where Obama earned only 37 percent of the vote in 2012. Cotton’s responses to Pryor have been both predictable and effective: Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare.

Expect Republicans to hammer that home and keep framing Pryor as a vote for the law in 2010 -- a vote that contributed in part to the defeat of Pryor's former Democratic colleague in the Senate, Blanche Lincoln.

GeorgiaMaybe no race offers a better litmus test of the GOP’s approach toward Obamacare going forward than the crowded Republican Senate primary in Georgia.

One of the Republicans vying for the GOP nomination, Rep. Phil Gingrey, used his first television ad to showcase his vow not to seek a second term unless Obamacare is repealed during his first.

Rep. Paul Broun, the most conservative candidate whose candidacy worries national Republicans the most, didn't vote for Rep. Fred Upton's, R-Mich., bill to restore health-care coverage to those who were dropped by their insurance plans because it didn't go far enough in repealing the law. And former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has run radio ads in her opponents' districts hitting them on subsidies they could receive to enroll in the exchanges.

Rep. Jack Kingston, another Republican vying for the Senate seat, took a slightly different tack last month, arguing in favor of trying to fix Obamacare and saying it would be irresponsible to simply let the law fail. That approach might help Kingston with moderate Republican voters and independents, but his conservative challengers virtually crucified the congressman for the remarks.

Kingston's words might not play in the GOP primary, but it could make him the most effective against the Democrats' strong nominee, Michelle Nunn.

LouisianaSen. Mary Landrieu, a rare Democrat elected from a southern state, has spent her political career in Republicans’ proverbial cross-hairs.

To the chagrin of some liberals, Landrieu led the charge to pass legislation to meet Obama's promise that individuals could keep their health-insurance plans if they liked them.

This bid to distance herself from Obamacare during one of its first birthing pains reflects the tenuous relationship between vulnerable Democrats and the Affordable Care Act.

She did say, however, in an interview Wednesday that she would support the legislation again.

Her likely GOP opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, has said her move was too little too late -- but a special election in the Pelican State earlier this year where the GOP candidate who didn't back full repeal of Obamacare, and even supported Medicaid expansion, could bode well for Landrieu as the top-two race at attracting independents. 

North CarolinaWith her first race for re-election to the Senate looming, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., was the first to ask for a probe into the bungled Obamacare launch and called for a full review.

She voted for the bill in 2010 and has defended her vote, but if problems continue, watchers will be interested in her response.

Republicans are sure to keep hanging her vote around her neck, but much like Landrieu, look for Hagan and other vulnerable Red State Democrats to be the ones to flee from defending the administration if problems with the program continue.

FloridaThe special election to replace the late Republican Rep. Bill Young is set forMarch 11 – just days before the enrollment deadline for the individual health-care exchanges.

Both parties are sure to use this race in a relatively competitive Florida district to refine their 2014 messages. For Republicans, they’ll sharpen their attacks against Obamacare; Democrats hope to highlight GOP obstructionism and their own difficulties in producing a budget.

Republicans have a primary fight here they'll have to overcome first, but they have already begun to pin Obamacare woes on Democrat Alex Sink, her party's unsuccessful 2010 nominee for governor. While the implications from special elections are often overstated or overblown, this Florida seat is one of the truest swing districts in the country. Sink carried it in her 2010 run for governor, but in 2012, Barack Obama just narrowly won the district, 50 percent to 49 percent, and Young won with 58 percent of the vote.

In 2008, Obama won it 51 percent to 48 percent. But in 2004, it was President George W. Bush who carried the district, 51 percent to 49 percent over John Kerry.

ArizonaDemocrat Ann Kirkpatrick lost her House seat in 2010 thanks to her vote for the Affordable Care Act before winning it back last fall. But Obamacare might well doom her again come next November.

This seat is only one of seven in the country held by a Democrat that also voted for the past three GOP presidential nominees (Romney, McCain and Bush). Even though Kirkpatrick is again a top target for the GOP, she was one of only two vulnerable Democrats not to break ranks and support Upton's bill. Kirkpatrick certainly gave Republicans even more ammunition with her vote, and expect that to be one of the central attacks against her.

MassachusettsIn this closely watched House district, Democratic Rep. John Tierney defied near-certain defeat in 2012. But, unlike most vulnerable House Democrats, he did not break with his party to back the Upton bill last month.

Troubled by his brother-in-law's illegal dealings, Tierney managed to overcome a strong challenge from Republican Richard Tisei last cycle, buoyed by strong turnout in favor of Obama in deep-blue Massachusetts. But Tisei is now eyeing a rematch, and Tierney won't have presidential headwinds at his back.

Though the seat will still be difficult for Republicans to win, Tierney must also fend off a primary challenger this cycle. Bleeding support for the Democratic-backed program would hurt him in the primary, but it's just the ammunition Republicans need against him if he survives to the general election.

NBC's Michael O’Brien and Carrie Dann contributed to this report.