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How Good Could 2014 Be for GOP?

In New Hampshire, the entrance of Scott Brown into the race would turn a likely easy victory for incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen into a very competitive contest. This is also the case in Alaska, a Republican-leaning state with a vulnerable Democratic incumbent but a wide open GOP primary field.

Candidates matter a lot, as does the effectiveness of campaigns. Mitt Romney won North Dakota by nearly 20 points in 2012, but the open Senate seat went to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by 1%, after she pitched a very state-friendly message to voters, with large separation from the message of the unpopular Obama campaign.

The volatility of voter preferences is evidenced by Rasmussen showing an 11-point shift towards the Democrats in the last two months in the generic ballot for Congress, after a similarly large move to the Republicans in the prior six weeks. Republican fortunes dipped sharply with the government shutdown and the threat of a debt default in the first two weeks of October, but rose after the Obamacare rollout disaster and a steady trickle of bad news about various features of the program, all requiring administration fixes of one kind or another.

The biggest PR disaster for the president and his party was the oft-repeated lie that under the Affordable Care Act, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance, and if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. Even the Obama-friendly media had a hard time minimizing the damage and covering up these particular lies.

Early efforts by Republicans to establish a message in states with competitive Senate races and competitive House districts have been all about Obamacare. Republicans seem to think they can ride this one right through the year to big victories in November. Obamacare never enjoyed majority support among voters, and now is deep underwater according to its approval score.

The big question politically will be whether the program stabilizes over the next few months or whether there will be a steady trickle of new bad news. It is likely that if Obamacare remains a big story, even the biggest story for much of the year, and the news is mostly bad, the president’s approval numbers will stay soft and Republicans will do well in November. They will likely win most of the closest races, plus a few from among Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, and Iowa, and hold their two most vulnerable seats in Georgia and Kentucky.

On the other hand, Democrats are not standing still.

Their voter identification and contact effort ran circles around the Romney campaign’s in 2012, and the Obama campaign’s technology investment was maintained and is now assisting Democrats in the midterms. Democrats are working to limit the fall-off in turnout in midterm elections among their base voters -- single women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians -- by blasting out the old workhorse messages: the Republicans’ “War on Women" and voter suppression efforts.

Democrats did a good job with candidate selection in some of the open seat races in Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, and West Virginia, though they are still likely to lose West Virginia and conceivably three or four from this group.

Larry Sabato, whose ratings change during the year, gives the GOP the edge for four pickups -- South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia and Arkansas -- and a 50% shot in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Alaska. He rates Democrats the favorites in Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire (as well as in longer-shot Colorado). Georgia is the most vulnerable Republican-held seat in this analysis.

Trende offers a word of caution for Republicans. They had best do very well in 2014, since 2016 could be a very bad year for the party. Maybe four to six GOP-held seats won in the GOP wave in 2010 could be highly vulnerable, and incumbents will be running for their first re-election in a more Democrat-friendly presidential election year.