The battle for control of the U.S. Senate, the grand prize of the 2014 elections, with Republicans needing to win a net of a half-dozen seats to take charge, is well-framed on Labor Day.
Republicans have the advantages of a friendly turf, the history of this political cycle -- which favors the party that doesn't hold the White House -- and the waning popularity of President Barack Obama, who sometimes seems indifferent.
Democrats hope to minimize losses as stronger candidates face a few gaffe-prone opponents, and by benefiting from a superior ground game or voter turnout machine and the waning popularity of the Republican brand.
As the nine-week home stretch starts, Republicans have a tailwind. They are solid favorites to capture three seats of retiring Democrats: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Then, of the eight races both sides agree are very competitive, Democrats are defending six. A half-dozen states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina -- were carried by Mitt Romney two years ago; Colorado and Iowa went Democratic then. There are only two Republican-held seats subject to serious challenge, Georgia and Kentucky, where the party's Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, is almost as unpopular as Obama.
If Republicans hold on to those two seats -- they are slight favorites -- and split the other half-dozen, the party will be in the majority.
Both sides harbor hopes for upsets. Republicans insist they have a chance in New Hampshire and Michigan (Democrats disagree) and a long shot in Minnesota. Democrats' upset hopes are more of a reach, though if their nominee drops out, an independent candidate might be competitive in Republican Kansas against an unpopular incumbent.
Democrats like to stress the micro, the unique advantages in some of these contested states: popular family legacies in Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana; a Republican state legislature in North Carolina that's unpopular, especially on education; and a few trouble-prone Republicans such as David Perdue in Georgia, whose business executive background carries the same liabilities as Romney's did two years ago.
Democratic strategists also believe that in a number of states their candidate will outperform polls by a point or two because of a superior voter targeting and turnout apparatus, building on Obama's campaign infrastructure. Unlike the last midterm elections, in 2010, when Republicans dominated, they predict respectable turnouts from black voters, Hispanics and unmarried women.
Republicans counter that their voters are more enthusiastic and thus more likely to turn out. They acknowledge that the party's brand name is worse than it was two or four years ago, though they argue that this midterm contest is overshadowed by the president's negatives.
Although they may have a couple of clunker candidates, there are no sure losers like last time, and they say there are some flawed Democratic aspirants such as the candidate in Iowa.
On issues, all Republicans will attack the Affordable Care Act, which still gins up their base. More emphasis will be on jobs and the economy, areas where Republicans think they have the upper hand.
A sleeper may be immigration; blocking immigration reform in Congress might hurt Republicans in the next presidential election with the fast-growing Hispanic vote. But the president probably will delay any executive action to liberalize immigration rules until after the election because nervous Democrats have warned that, with the current border controversies, it could cost several Senate seats in conservative states.
With most of the Big 8 races showing a spread of only a few points, the campaign and circumstances over the next nine weeks may be decisive. One thing that won't change is the country's foul mood -- and that encourages Republicans.
"I like where we are on Labor Day," says Scott Reed, the chief political consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce whose mission is to help elect a Republican-controlled Senate. "I'd rather be us than them."
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