Top 4 Senate Campaign Storylines at Midsummer

Four months from now, we’ll be looking back on Election 2014 evaluating the votes and how they were cast.  Will Republicans succeed in their quest to gain the majority in the Senate, or will Democrats weather the six-year itch and retain control?  With primary season taking a month-long break, it seems a good time to pause and look back on how the election season has progressed so far.  There have been plenty of intriguing storylines surrounding the 36 Senate races on tap this year.   Here are four that have caught my attention.

Tea Party influence in Senate races comes up short

A popular theme all year has been the numerous failures of the Tea Party movement.  Media outlets have been quick to herald the disappointments as an indication of Tea Party decline. Some conservatives, however, like to point to certain situations where this is simply not true.  They say that narrative is just wishful thinking by a liberal media hoping to temper the Tea Party’s effect and hasten, if possible, its demise.

They point to Eric Cantor’s primary defeat to unknown Tea Party challenger Dave Brat last month as evidence of the earth-shaking punch the Tea Party still packs. To be sure, Cantor’s loss rocked the electoral landscape – and the GOP leadership – but as PJ Media’s David Steinberg pointed out, the shocking result came about through a perfect storm of many circumstances, only one of which was Brat’s Tea Party backing.

While House primary elections have produced Tea Party successes, and, fundamentally, the Tea Party continues to change “the dynamic of Republican politics,” the fact that several Senate primaries have been disappointing to Tea Party enthusiasts is undeniable.  And the list is not short:  Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, even John Cornyn in Texas.  All won the GOP nomination in races where the Tea Party had high hopes going into the 2014 election season.  In North and South Carolina, efforts to nominate a Tea Party candidate couldn't even force a runoff against the establishment favorite.

Terri Land’s fast start fizzles in Michigan

Democrats have dominated Senate elections in Michigan since current Senator Debbie Stabenow unseated Republican Spencer Abraham in 2000.  Between 2002 and 2012, she and senior Michigan Senator Carl Levin never won reelection by less than 15 points.  So when Public Policy Polling released a poll back in December giving Republican Terri Land a two-point lead in the race to replace Levin, Republicans cheered the prospect of a competitive race in a state void of GOP Senate election success so far this century.

Polling early this year did nothing to quench Republican excitement.  Six of the first eight polls of 2014 put Land ahead of the Democratic nominee, Congressman Gary Peters.  Until April, this race clearly leaned in the GOP’s direction and represented an unexpected pickup opportunity that threatened to make Democrats’ task of holding the Senate in a difficult year that much more challenging.

But the arrival of spring ushered in Peters’ striking resurgence.  All seven polls released since mid-April give him leads ranging from 3 to 9 points.  As a result, Election Projection projects Peters will triumph with a 5.6% margin of victory.  That doesn’t mean he’s a lock to follow outgoing Senator Levin and keep this seat in Democratic hands – Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, is a legitimate contender.  But what looked early on like a very promising Republican surprise has taken on the characteristics of a hard-fought Democratic hold.