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Senate rundown top 10: Daunting map for Dems

The 2014 Senate map starts off downright scary for Democrats. With 21 seats up, many of which they only narrowly won six years ago, their task was daunting.

The 2014 Senate map starts off downright scary for Democrats. With 21 seats up, many of which they only narrowly won six years ago, their task was daunting. Add to that retirements in several GOP-leaning or swing states, and their hand didn’t get any better. But, Democrats have faced daunting maps before, and in 2012, when they were supposed to lose seats, ended with them picking up two states.

But the 2014 map is a far different beast. While the odds are long for Republicans to pick up the six seats they need for control, there’s certainly plenty of opportunities for them to do so. The underlying problem for both parties: Democrats can’t convince their incumbents to stay, while Republicans can’t convince their candidates to run.

There’s still 18 months before voters head to the polls, and these races are far from settled with many variables certain to roil races before November 2014. But given what we know now about the Senate landscape, we present The Daily Rundown’s inaugural list of our top 10 Senate races most likely to flip control -- nine Democratic-held seats and just one GOP race.

1. West Virginia Open (Jay Rockefeller, D). Republicans landed a top recruit early on in Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who would have been a formidable foe whether Rockefeller ran for re-election or not. Capito has faced criticism from conservatives over her record, but there hasn't been a well-financed alternative that’s emerged. And in a state that likes its federal money, her votes aren’t necessarily a turnoff, even to the GOP electorate. With Rockefeller retiring, Democrats are still searching for a challenger as Captio already has $2.3 million in the bank. Attorney Nick Preservati seems to be the favorite name for Democrats, but this one is tilting heavily toward the GOP.

2. South Dakota Open (Tim Johnson, D). Republicans liked their chances with former Gov. Mike Rounds leading the ticket, but things got a lot easier when Johnson stepped aside, Rounds could still face a challenge from Rep. Kristi Noem, but Democrats could have a primary too. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a moderate who lost in 2010, is interested, but former Tom Daschle aide Rick Weiland just announced his candidacy, which many take as a sign the retiring senator’s son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, now won't run. In a state where the president lost by 18 points, this one is a top Democratic worry.

3. Arkansas (Mark Pryor, D). Yes, President Obama lost the Razorback State by 24 points in 2012. And yes, Pryor still has a D beside his name. But the Pryor family name shouldn’t be completely discounted, and the moderate senator has cast some votes against his party that will help distance himself from the president. Republicans are bullish on freshman Rep. Tom Cotton as a potential nominee, but he’s still somewhat politically green, while Pryor was practically raised in politics. That could be a negative, but Republicans may underestimate Pryor a bit too much -- and this one and number four on our list are remarkably close in our eyes.

4. Alaska (Mark Begich, D). Begich upset Republican Ted Stevens in 2008 when the incumbent was under an ethical cloud, but he’s been a moderate Democrat since heading to Washington and will have plenty of money to win the race. Still, this is a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat since 1974 prior to Begich. Exactly how competitive this is depends on who runs. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell looks very interested, but Joe Miller, who upset Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary only to lose the general to her as a write-in, could make things interesting. This is still a tough state for Democrats to hold.

5. Louisiana (Mary Landrieu, D). The three-term Democratic senator also hails from a famous political family in the state, but she’s never had very impressive wins. Republicans will use her 'yes' votes for Obamacare, among others, to hit her in this GOP-leaning state. Rep. Bill Cassidy is in the race for Republicans, but others could still get in. Obama lost this state by 18 points, and it should be a top concern for Democrats.

6. North Carolina (Kay Hagan, D). In 2008, Hagan upset Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) with help from Obama’s turnout machine in the state--a luxury she won’t have in a midterm year. The state has been trending toward the GOP, and Hagan hasn’t had as conservative a voting record some of her other red state Democrats like Pryor and Landrieu. Republicans need to settle on a candidate first. State House Speaker Thom Tillis will decide in June whether to run, and Senate President pro tem Phil Berger and state Labor Commissioner Cheri Berry are also potential candidates. Given the recent trends toward the GOP in the Tar Heel state, Hagan, and Democrats, should be worried.

7. Montana Open (Max Baucus, D). Democrats may be better off without the retiring Baucus on the ballot, but that’s if former Gov. Brian Schweitzer throws his hat in the ring. Republicans have a thin bench in the state, and former Gov. Marc Racicot and freshman Rep. Steve Daines are the names most batted about. Republicans will tie Schweitzer to Obama, particularly his support for Obamacare, but Republicans have to have a strong candidate first.

8. Iowa Open (Tom Harkin, D). This race would be listed higher on our list, except the GOP is missing one key thing: a top candidate. After Republican after Republican--even Rep. Steve King!--passed on the race, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker did throw his hat in this week. But with Rep. Bruce Braley (D) looking to avoid a primary and stockpile cash, this one is looking worse and worse for the GOP. Still it’s better to be a Republican in Iowa than in Michigan, so we’re giving a slight edge to the GOP in the Hawkeye state.

9. Michigan Open (Carl Levin, D). Levin’s retirement gives Republicans an opportunity in the Wolverine State, but a slim one. Rep. Gary Peters (D) announced his candidacy last week and may have the primary field clear, while Republicans are still searching for a nominee. Rep. Mike Rogers would be a strong candidate, but libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash worries strategists statewide. How competitive this one is depends mainly on who Republicans end up finding to run.

10. Georgia Open (Saxby Chambliss, R).  The only Republican-held seat on our list, how competitive this seat ends up being for Democrats hinges both on who emerges from the GOP primary and who Democrats run. If a candidate with a history of controversial statements, like Rep. Paul Broun (R) or maybe even Rep. Phil Gingrey (R), wins, Republicans won’t be as strong as they could be. For Democrats, moderate Rep. John Barrow passed this week, but the immediate private refrain from party strategists was that Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, was going to be an even better candidate for them -- a female with a famous political name who could drive women and the Democratic base to the polls, though she might not have a clear primary, with former DeKalb County chief executive Vernon Jones also looking at a bid. Both sides have dicey scenarios. Georgia could be interesting next year, but for now it’s only a mild worry for the GOP.

Honorable Mentions: What other races could make our list under the right circumstances?

Kentucky (Mitch McConnell, R) His approval ratings are down, but the Senate minority leader has already run an aggressive campaign, and he won’t be as easy as Democrats think to take down.

Massachusetts Open (Mo Cowan, D) If Republican Gabriel Gomez somehow pulls an upset in the June special election over Rep. Ed Markey (D), this one shoots to number one on the list.

Minnesota (Al Franken, D) Did anyone think five years ago that Franken, who won after a protracted recount in 2008, wouldn’t be on our list? The former comedian has been a disciplined senator, and Republican recruits don’t seem to want to run against him.

South Carolina (Lindsey Graham, R) The state’s more moderate senior senator hasn’t gotten a real primary challenge yet, and would be well positioned anyway. Do Democrats get a candidate here, just in case, though?