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Eight key questions for whether Republicans take back the Senate

BY Domenico Montanaro, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  July 22, 2014 at 9:15 AM EDT

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The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Republicans to get their Georgia Senate candidate
  • Are Republicans any closer to taking back the Senate?
  • Worm turning (again) on Obama vs. Putin narrative?
  • Immigration latest

Just an old sweet song: Georgia voters are already heading to the polls Tuesday to select the Republican Senate nominee for the open seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The choice in the runoff is between Congressman Jack Kingston and David Perdue, a former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok. It’s a key race because it is one of only two Republican-held seats Democrats are targeting. Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is waiting in the wings as her party’s nominee. She has so far held up against both candidates, with the race about tied in polling. But she has not yet felt the pressure of a general election race and the money from Republicans. The next two months will be a proving ground for Nunn. Is she the real deal, able to capitalize on a state with changing demographics, or will Republicans more easily retain this seat than the polls currently show?

No peace I find: Kingston is seen as the slight favorite Tuesday. A poll out Monday showed him up 48 percent to 41 percent, but Perdue has been within striking distance in other polls — and polling in primaries can be, well, inexact. Establishment GOP groups have rallied around Kingston over Perdue, a success in the business world but a political novice, who has, at times, looked unsteady. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has poured in $2.3 million to support Kingston, something Perdue is using to paint Kinsgston as pro-“amnesty.” (The chamber was in support of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill.) “David Perdue has never supported amnesty and never will,” an announcer says. “Never.” The ad is slightly ironic considering Perdue sought the group’s endorsement. For his part, Kingston is attacking Perdue in a mailer as an “investor in a French bank that did business with terrorists.” That’s right next to a picture of the Eiffel Tower. It’s pretty clear how Democrats will run against either candidate. If it’s Kingston, they’ll tie him to Congress and more specifically the Republican-controlled House. If it’s Perdue, expect them to re-open the Romney playbook. The polls don’t indicate which would be the stronger candidate against Nunn, but either is preferable to D.C. Republicans than any of the three they beat out in the May 20 primary — Reps. Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun, or Karen Handel. Polls close at 7 p.m. ET.

The beginning of the rest of the election cycle: The Georgia race also kicks off the start of the rest of the election season. It’s the last major race before the August primary sprint. So where are Republicans now? Are they any closer to taking back the Senate? Back in March, NewsHour looked at the Senate landscape, and only a couple of things have changed. Back then: Republicans were seriously contesting in seven Romney-won states — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. That’s still true. But Democrats Mark Begich in Alaska and Mark Pryor in Arkansas are leading or in better-than-expected positions. Republicans were also trying to expand the map to bluer states won by President Barack Obama — taking advantage of Democratic retirements in Iowa and Michigan and good recruits in Colorado and New Hampshire. So have they expanded that map? Largely, yes. Colorado and Iowa, in particular, have become serious targets with toss-up races. Democrats do feel better about Michigan than, say, a couple of months ago. And New Hampshire — despite the high-profile recruit of former Sen. Scott Brown — looks like a reach. Democrats were contesting in two states — Kentucky and Georgia — and they continue to be in the game there with two candidates who — for now — appear tied in hypothetical match-ups with their Republican counterparts. So, in all, there are 12 or 13 states in play (if you count Michigan) and 11 of them are held by Democrats, leaving SOME margin for Republicans to net the six seats necessary to win control of the Senate.

Key questions for whether Republicans take back the Senate: Republicans have mostly done everything they need to do from a campaign structure standpoint — raised the money, gotten the recruits, and beaten back the tea party so they’re not been saddled with highly problematic candidates. But many key questions remain: (1) Can Republicans overcome the legacies the Pryors and Begiches have built up in those states? Along those lines, can the right candidate emerge in Alaska and can Tom Cotton in Arkansas find his footing? If they can, the dam could break in Republicans’ favor, but if not, Democrats could hold onto a slight majority; (2) Can Republicans hold their two defenses in Kentucky and Georgia and put some distance between their candidates and the Democrats over the next few months? (3) Can Republicans keep the gender gap in key races like Colorado and Iowa in single digits?

What about bigger issues: (4) Presidential approval ratings track with midterm losses for his party, but just how much of a drag will President Obama’s struggling approval ratings be on Democrats, especially in key red states — or will Democrats effectively localize and will Republicans’ own very low numbers cancel them out? (5) Do people start to FEEL like the economy is getting better? HEADLINE economic numbers have been as good as they’ve been under this president, and yet broad majorities believe the country is off on the wrong track and many believe the economy won’t get better in the next 12 months; (6) Do foreign-policy crises ebb by the fall?; (7) How much does the immigration border crisis further depress Latinos or does it fade? To that point, can Democratic efforts to fire up other key constituencies actually turn them out at higher rates than past years? History says that’s unlikely; (8) Republicans’ message going into this midterm was almost singularly focused — against the health care law. Outside groups like the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity have made that a mainstay of their multi-million-dollar advertising. But does health care still have the kind of saliency as a motivating factor with the Republican base now that there aren’t daily stories of sign-up disasters?

Better second-day reviews for Obama vs. Putin: A day after President Obama was criticized for not being “strong enough” in response to the downed Malaysian jetliner in Ukraine, headline after headline tell a different story, depicting Mr. Obama as pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and demanding access to the crash site. Mr. Obama said Monday that Russia has “extraordinary influence” and, in fact, “direct influence” over the separatists the U.S. suspect of shooting down the plane and blocking access to the site. “President Putin in particular, has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation,” Mr. Obama said. “That is the least that they can do.” He added that the “burden now is on Russia.” Obama also noted his “preference” is a “diplomatic resolution,” but if Russia didn’t cooperate he warned of further Russian isolation. Bloomberg’s Terry Atlas and Jonathan Allen write that Obama’s speech “reflects the consensus of U.S. officials that time, evidence, and world opinion are increasingly on his side as he takes on Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The trick is getting European leaders unified. NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff talked to Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Monday on whether Putin can change course in Ukraine.

Border funding request, like much of everything else, stuck in Congress: Action in Congress on the president’s $3.7 billion border request appears stuck, and the body is set to go on recess in just nine days. Confidence among congressional leadership that something will get done continues to dwindle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed doubts that anything would move forward before summer recess during a speech Monday afternoon. Reid criticized the Republican response and later tweeted, “We need to get resources to Border Patrol who are caring for these children. But Republicans refuse to provide it unless we deport DREAMers.” The sticking point still appears to be the 2008 child-trafficking law that requires immigrant children go through the U.S. immigration courts. Republicans want to significantly alter that. But for many Democrats, that is a nonstarter. Without Democratic votes in the House, passing something that gives the president more money — even if the 2008 law is amended — would be tough sledding for House Speaker John Boehner. Meanwhile in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry, a possible 2016 contender, plans to send 1,000 Texas National Guard members to the border — despite the children mostly turning themselves in. “There can be no national security without border security,” Perry said at a news conference Monday afternoon, “and Texans have paid too high a price for the federal government’s failure to secure our border.”

White House says apprehensions of children at the border cut in half: The White House, for its part, Monday tried to change the narrative of the border being overrun with unaccompanied minors, noting in a readout of a meeting with the president’s “Homeland Security Council” that “preliminary data show that average daily apprehensions of unaccompanied children by the Customs and Border Patrol have dropped by about half from June to July.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest earlier Monday told reporters at the daily briefing that Border Patrol apprehended an average of 355 unaccompanied children each day last month in the Rio Grande Valley, down from an average of 150 in the first two weeks of July. But Earnest was on the defensive regarding the administration’s handling of the crisis. A Washington Post article charged the administration had been warned of the impending crisis for a year. Earnest dismissed the reporting as “based entirely on anonymous sourcing” and defended the administration’s handling. “There were a number of steps that were taken by this administration in the months before, or at least in the weeks before, this became the media sensation….” President Obama will meet Friday with the leaders from from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, from where most of the children are coming.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized a total of 44 U.S. battalions to be committed to South Vietnam, which led to a massive escalation of the war. Who served as Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, who made the troop recommendation? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to Mark Gorman (‏@gormanme) for guessing Monday’s trivia: What was the last movie Reagan ever acted in? The answer was: The Killers.

LINE ITEMS

  • Tuesday morning President Obama will sign the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. In the afternoon, the president will travel to Seattle, Washington to attend a Democratic National Committee fundraising event at the home of former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal. Late Tuesday night he will depart Seattle for San Francisco.

  • Broadening U.S. efforts to reach a cease-fire in Gaza, Secretary of State John Kerry met early Tuesday first with the Palestinian Authority intelligence chief, and later, with the Egyptian foreign minister to try to revive a truce proposal previously rejected by Hamas. Mr. Obama reiterated his administration’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself Monday, but said, “We don’t want to see any more civilians killed.”

  • Robert McDonald, Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, appears before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Tuesday. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are still working to reach a deal on a VA reform bill.

  • In his most definitive comments yet on the issue, Mr. Obama called granting the District of Columbia statehood “the right thing to do” Monday at a school in the city.

  • “Draft Mitt”, an effort to recruit Mitt Romney to run for president yet again, will be ready for the national stage in August, according to Utah’s Republican Party chairman.

  • The Environmental Defense Action Fund is going up with a $400,000 TV ad buy in Denver to run over the next two weeks in support of incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

  • Sen. Pat Roberts’, R-Kan., conservative challenger is up with an ad using a Roberts look-alike hitting him for residency issues and his tenure. “No one should spend 47 years in Washington,” Wolf says in the ad’s kicker. Roberts is depicted in a recliner on a golf course while an ad plays painting him as sympathetic to Mr.Obama’s agenda.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calls for ending party primaries — “a menace to governing” — in favor of the open primary in a New York Times op-ed.

  • As the GOP runoff nears an end in Georgia, Ending Spending Action has launched a TV ad tying Democrat Michelle Nunn to Mr. Obama and accusing her of supporting higher taxes.

  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is launching a $500,000 TV ad attack Tuesday against Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and her position on entitlements.

  • Florida Rep. David Jolly became the eighth current GOP member of Congress to support state recognition of same-sex marriages Monday.

  • Signs of a GOP wave — the kind that shifted power in 2010 — have yet to appear, writes the New York Times’ Nate Cohn.

  • Some Democrats fear Minnesota 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan, newly added to the DCCC’s Frontline Program, isn’t up to the job of getting re-elected.

  • A majority of New Jersey voters think it’s “very or somewhat unlikely” that Gov. Chris Christie was unaware of the George Washington Bridge lane closures, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released Tuesday, which puts the governor’s approval rating at 44 percent.

  • Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas gubernatorial campaign will be getting a helping hand in August from Christie, when he visits one of the few remaining states he has not yet visited as governor.

  • On his latest campaign swing, for Connecticut gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, Christie encountered protesters who are angry with his refusal to meet with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting before vetoing a New Jersey bill that would have banned magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

  • A federal judge has dismissed Sen. Ron Johnson’s suit against the Affordable Care Act, which objected to lawmakers and their staff having to obtain health insurance through exchanges.

  • Even protestors have given up on Congress, writes Ben Terris of the Washington Post.

  • After keynoting the state Democratic convention, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is returning to Iowa, this time to fundraise for targeted state Senate races.

  • NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff spoke with Monday’s Medal of Honor recipient Ryan Pitts about the incident that earned him the medal and how his life has changed since.

  • BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer looks at the media sensation that was former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

  • The ratio of reporters to people is highest in Vermont and lowest in California, according to the Pew Research Center.

  • The Federal Elections Committee has told Manhattan Republican Nick Di Iorio, the longshot challenger to New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, that he can appear in a reality show about being a political longshot, but neither he nor his campaign manager can be paid for the appearance.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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