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Democrats face rough road in 2014 Senate races

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CBS

Congress' current legislative fights over budgets, immigration and gun control carry a special urgency for senators up for re-election next year, particularly for the many Democrats running in Republican-leaning states; control of the Senate will surely hang on their fates.

Waiting for them at home this week, in what's sure to be only the first of many such targeting examples, are ads from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PAC in support of stricter gun control measures. These add to the cross pressures they face in knowing they'll need to both motivate their base and woo some Republicans and conservatives over the next year in order to win.

And today, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., announced today he won't seek re-election next year, opening up yet another seat in a red state that Democrats will need to defend, and yet another race that promises a spotlight battle.

It is, in sum, a tough landscape for Democrats that just got a little tougher.

The territory they're defending has much more rural influence than urban; seats in places like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, all of which Mitt Romney carried. Conversely, none of the Republican seats up, with the exception of Maine, are in states carried by President Obama. And Democrats overall are defending more seats next year (21) than Republicans (14) just as they did in 2012.

Plus, there are the historical headwinds: the majority party doesn't usually fare very well in the mid-term of a re-elected president. In 2006, President George W. Bush's GOP lost six seats and control of the Senate; in 1998, President Clinton's Democrats vs. the GOP was a draw; and in President Ronald Reagan's 6th year, in 1986, Democrats gained eight seats and control of the U.S. Senate.

The challenges Democrats will face next year, even in addition to the red state/blue state baselines, are illustrated by the national electorate tends to look like during midterm elections: lower turnout and older and less diverse electorates, which disadvantages Democrats; plus, a group highly motivated to vote by a single issue (like opposition to more gun laws) can hold more sway.

The table at left compares the 2012 and 2010 electorates. In 2010 we also saw 12 percent under age 30, a key Democratic group that made up 19 percent in 2012. The 2010 midterms had five points more white voters, a majority of whom back the GOP, and two points fewer African Americans, almost all of whom back Democrats. (*Having said that, if we consider the historical trend pattern as a percentage reduction from the previous Presidential cycle's white vote rather than a straight subtraction, the impact may be more favorable to Democrats, since the white vote was down in 2012 from previous presidential cycles.)

A few of the states where the gun control ads are running jump out right away as places Democratic incumbents may have their hands full - no doubt by design - and are where the gun issue and the suburban and rural vote could be pivotal. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., among others, are all up in states Mr. Obama lost in 2012, in two cases by wide margins (Mr. Obama received 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas and 41 percent in Louisiana).

"Every cycle is different," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "One, President Obama is not running for reelection. So you're looking at these members running in red states and a lot happen to be running on the Obama agenda," Dayspring added, pointing to Democratic incumbents like Pryor and Hagan.

Consider too that in 2008, the last time these senators faced election, in North Carolina 44 percent of the vote came from small cities and rural areas; in Louisiana 19 percent of it; in Arkansas 44 percent. Nationally, our polling shows the desire to keep gun laws as they are is higher among rural and small-town voters, as has been the case over time.

One potential spot regarding the gun control issue is that women are more likely to favor stricter laws than men in the latest national CBS News poll (55 to 39 percent) and women have made up a majority of voters in 2012 (53 percent) and in the off-year 2010 (52 percent) - though getting Democratic women to the polls will of course be key for them. And the big caveat: what we learned in 2012 is that Senate races don't always hew to the red-state/blue state dynamic, but often hinge on candidates or views of the national party - witness Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp in "red" North Dakota and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

Next page: an early look at the Senate landscape

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director