The decision by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, not to seek another term in the Senate is the first dent in Democrats' chances of hanging onto power in the upper chamber in 2014 — and emblematic of the challenges the party faces in protecting seats they hold in red states.
Calling it quits after nearly 30 years in the Senate, Mr. Rockefeller said it was the "right moment for me to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in and to spend more time with my incredible family."
But the 75-year-old also faced a potentially difficult re-election battle, putting him in a similar position to another half dozen or so red state Democrats who will be running in what is likely to be a much tougher midterm political environment -- with no President Obama atop the ticket.
"You are going to see a lot of the Senate seats in the 2014 elections that are held by Democrats that come from rather red states, and the Republicans see those as a real opportunity for pickups," said R. Scott Crichlow, a University of West Virginia political science professor.
In 2014, there are 35 Senate seats up for grabs — including the seats left vacant by the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, and the resignation of Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who stepped down to head the conservative Heritage Foundation. Democrats will be defending 21 of them, and Republicans will be defending 14.
As it stands, Democrats hold a 55 to 45 seat edge — including two independents who caucus with the party — over Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats have called the shots since 2007.
To take back the chamber, the Senate GOP needs a net gain of six seats.
The list of vulnerable Democrats includes Alaska's Mark Begich, Arkansas' Mark L. Pryor, Montana's Max Baucus, South Dakota's Tim Johnson, North Carolina's Kay R. Hagan and Louisiana's Mary L. Landrieu.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, carried each of those state in 2012, and there are indications all six have become friendlier GOP turf.
In 2012, Arkansas Republicans swept the state's congressional races and took control of the state General Assembly for the time since 1874, when Reconstruction ended there.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Louisiana, the Democratic Party, thanks in large part to the Hurricane Katrina-fueled mass exodus of black voters who have not returned to the state, is still trying to regain its footing.
The party's struggles were on full display in 2010, when Republican Sen. David Vitter easily won re-election to the Senate, despite being involved in a prostitution scandal in Washington.
"Sen. Landrieu certainly should not be considered a shoo-in," said Brian J. Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. "An incumbent is hard to beat, but the demographics trends are moving away from her."
Mr. Rockefeller's departure is a big shot in the arm for GOP plans to retake the Senate.
West Virginia has supported Republican presidential candidates each of the last four presidential elections. Republicans picked up 11 seats in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2011, and Patrick Morrisey in November became the first member of the GOP to be elected attorney general since 1933.
Making matters worse for Democrats, seven-term Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of a former governor, announced in November that she would challenge Mr. Rockefeller for his seat.
"The West Virginia seat is a super-prime opportunity for Republicans in 2014," said Larry J. Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The state has essentially turned red, and the GOP has a superb candidate in Shelley Moore Capito, who has her father's political genes."
Mr. Crichlow said it would have been a tight race between Mrs. Capito and Mr. Rockefeller, and said that Mrs. Capito has to be "considered the favorite" because it is not clear who Democrats will put up against her.
"You have these two giant names in Democratic politics [in West Virginia] — one being Rockefeller and one being Manchin — and one of them is gone forever," Mr. Crichlow said, alluding to the family of the state's other senator, Joe Manchin III. "That is a big thing. It takes a long time in West Virginia to develop a name for yourself. So, when you lose someone at that level, it is going to be a blow to the party."
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