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Pick Six: Time for midterm predictions

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FILE: October 11, 2013: The U.S Capitol Building, in Washington, D.C.REUTERS

FOX News First: Jan. 1
By Chris Stirewalt


PICK SIX: TIME FOR MIDTERM PREDICTIONS

Happy New Year! You made it! And it’s an election year, that magical time when the aspirations and frustrations of 317 million Americans are extruded through the Play-Doh Fun Factory of electoral politics. You know how you always wanted to get that perfect star-shaped tube but always ended up with something that looked like a hairy caterpillar? It’s kind of like that. (This explains a great deal about Washington, by the way.)

So let’s get squeezing.

WHAT’S UP? - Voters will have a crack at all 435 seats in the House, 35 of 100 Senate seats, 36 of 50 governorships and a host of other state and local positions on Nov. 4. But what’s really at issue is control of the Senate. Republicans have twice failed to take the upper chamber despite considerable advantages. If Democrats hold the line again, President Obama will have a much easier time putting his agenda into place, especially given the new powers the Democratic majority granted itself to approve presidential appointments. If Republicans can retake the majority for the first time since 2005, Obama would devote much of his final two years in office vetoing legislation and fighting to get his nominees in place.

THE BASELINE - Midterm elections are generally more favorable for Republicans than quadrennial elections because Republicans are more reliable voters. The Democratic coalition depends on young and low-income voters who are harder and more expensive to mobilize without a presidential race to draw attention. All year, we’ll be tracking polls on the generic congressional ballot not because the House seems to be up for grabs, but because that’s the clearest reflection of how the partisan winds are blowing. Because of the aforementioned GOP midterm turnout advantage, Republicans can be expected to make gains if they are even close to even with Democrats in this measure. The Real Clear Politics Average shows Democrats have lost their traditional advantage in this measure and begin the year with an edge of less than a quarter point. In 2010, early polls showed Republicans in about the same place.

History says - Only once in the past century has a second-term president’s party made midterm gains, 1998 when Bill Clinton’s Democrats won five House seats and avoided any Senate losses. But Clinton was far more popular than Obama is now and the central issue – Clinton’s looming impeachment for lying about having sex with a White House intern – did not much inspire voters. More typical were the 2006 midterm, when the party in control of the White House saw six Senate seats and 31 House seats fall, and the 1986 midterm, when the president’s party lost five House seats and eight Senate seats, losing control of the upper chamber.

Timing - Armed with historical precedent, a president in the doldrums and, most significantly, deep public dissatisfaction with Obama’s health law, Republicans would appear to be in a strong position to hold the House and take the Senate. Democrats will hope that fratricidal impulses between establishment and conservative Republicans will dampen some GOP gains and that Democrats can use Team Obama’s fundraising and organization to put some Republicans on defense. The best Democratic hope is to animate base voters with narrow-cast issues like amnesty for illegal immigrants, income inequality and mandatory birth control coverage in insurance plans and then hope that Republicans are too divided to take full advantage.

Six the hard way - To gain control in the Senate, Republicans need to pick up six seats. Some gains, particularly the open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota, look strong for the GOP, so does the seat soon to be vacated by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. But where might the other three come from? An open seat in Michigan looks promising for Republicans, as may one in Iowa, depending on how the field pans out. But to get to the majority, Republicans will have to knock off sitting Democrats.

Class of 2008 - The election six years ago was very good for Democrats, but that means they have a lot of fat in the fire this time around. Mark Begich won in Alaska in 2008 thanks to scandal surrounding the Republican incumbent at the time and some mild pro-Obama breezes even in Sarah Palin’s home state. This time around, though, it’s looking like permafrost for Begich. Similarly, though less precariously situated are fellow freshmen Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Mark Udall, D-Colo.

Last of the Dixiecrats - Control of the Senate may well come down to two adjacent Mississippi Valley states, Arkansas and Louisiana. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., have defied gravity for years in their bright-red states. Landrieu has shown a willingness to swat back against the president, and has suggested that she too was misled by Obama’s “if you like it” pledge about health coverage and medical care when she voted for the law. Pryor, though, seems to have been caught flat-footed. In his first ad of the cycle, Pryor literally waved a Bible at viewers and reaffirms his Christian faith. Not exactly a strong start if one feels obliged to clear that up in one of the most observantly Christian states in the nation.

START WITH THE STATES - Republicans hold 29 of 50 governors’ mansions and Democrats are hoping to eliminate that margin. But we’ll be paying close attention to gubernatorial races to see which way the national trend is moving and for hints about the battle for the Senate.

Some gubernatorial contests will be gruesome. Florida’s Charlie Crist, who flamed out as a Republican in 2010, is trying for redemption as a Democrat in what promises to be a hugely expensive mud bath for the state. Incumbent Rick Scott has deep pockets and is not going to be an easy out. Another potential slime treatment for voters is the re-election bid of Pat Quinn, the Democratic governor of struggling Illinois. Quinn won narrowly in 2010 and has seen the state slide closer to fiscal oblivion in his term. The Republican field is so far promising, including state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

Democrats will try hardest to unhorse the Rust Belt Four – ScottWalker, R-Wis., John Kasich, R-Ohio, Tom Corbett, R-Pa., and Dan Snyder, R-Mich. Those contests will have 2016 implications, particularly Wisconsin and Ohio. Some others, including the re-election bids of Susana Martinez, R-N.M., Brian Sandoval, R-Nev., and Nikki Haley, R-S.C., may have 2016 significance, too.

As Democrats wrestle with the possibility that they may have a weak 2016 frontrunner in Hillary Clinton, several of their incumbent governors will be running with a little more scrutiny. California’s Jerry Brown, Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and New York’s Andrew Cuomo could all be credible candidates if Hillary capsizes. Maryland’s Martin O’Malley is also adamant that he might run for president.

O’Malley, though, like Oregon’s John Kitzhaber, Minnesota’s Mark Dayton and a few others will have some cleaning up to do over their states’ ObamaCare rollouts. Democrats, on the other hand, will try to punish Republicans who have refused to expand the welfare insurance program, Medicaid, under ObamaCare, particularly Corbett in Pennsylvania, Scott in Florida and Paul LePage in Maine. How these issues play out in swing states will instruct 2016 candidates on how to deal with the subject.

MORE About Surrogates - We’ll also be watching to see how newly re-elected Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., does at playing team ball. Surrogacy has not been his strong suit. Can Christie turn his term as chairman of the Republican Governors Association into a chance to not just raise his own profile but also build bridges with fellow Republicans skeptical of his status as the establishment press’ most-favored GOPer? Watch the campaign outings of Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Texas’ outgoing Rick Perry, as well. And if Jeb Bush is looking to knock the rust off, he’s got a doozy of a race going on in his own peninsula.

Democrats will also have a surrogacy test for their 2016 field, too. President Obama will be expected to raise money and stay in Washington, preferably out of sight, as Election Day draws nearer. (Red state and swing state Democrats will be chipping in greens fees to keep him on the course this summer.) But will Vice President Joe Biden be in demand on the campaign trail anywhere but deep blue states? For Biden to keep alive his claim that he could be a contender, he will need to show that someone, other than the staff members of The Onion, thinks this is a good idea.

Bill Clinton certainly will be in demand, but for the Big He, the questions are different. How much risk will he take in a year that promises to be tough for Democrats, especially when it means defending ObamaCare? How willing is his wife to have him out chewing up the campaign trail before she gets to unveil her re-re-reinvented self?

And might Hillary herself appear? The Big She could show up for a candidate that matches her new more liberal pitch and show the party’s liberal base that Hilary 4.0 isn’t triangulating. Maybe a Udall or two. Maybe Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Certainly some work to reinforce her leadership of the Democratic political sisterhood would set media hearts thrumming. Hey, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire doesn’t happen to have an early primary, does it?

Bill Clinton is making a big play in Arkansas, where his longtime ally Sen. Mark Pryor is facing long odds for re-election. Pryor’s vote for ObamaCare is proving toxic and with the popular Democratic incumbent Gov. Mike Beebe term-limited from another run and his lieutenant governor under pressure to resign over campaign finance violations, it looks like Democrats might be sitting this cycle out in very conservative Arkansas.

PICK YOUR SIX - All that said, it seems at the start of this election year that the most likely path for Republicans to re-capture the Senate would run through South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Michigan, Iowa and Arkansas. But we’re just getting started.

Send your six picks for the most likely Republican path to FOXNEWSFIRST@FOXNEWS.COM or tweet them to @cstirewalt – we’ll share your consensus tomorrow.

Happy New Year, especially for political junkies.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.