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How the 2014 elections tip prospects for a 'grand bargain' on US deficits

Whoever wins the White House – President Obama or Mitt Romney – will need help from the other side of the aisle in the Senate to reach a deal on meaningful debt- and deficit-reduction. But key senators up for reelection in 2014 face wrenching tradeoffs.

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Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the tea party group FreedomWorks, says he “wouldn’t take anyone off the table” as potential targets for a 2014 GOP primary challenge if conservatives perceive they’ve been betrayed, including minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John  Cornyn (R) of Texas. FreedomWorks put its muscle behind the ouster of Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah in 2010.

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Still, each of the five GOP senators is a political survivor, say strategists with conservative groups who would be in the thick of potential primary challenges. It may be difficult to find a viable primary challenger in any of those races and almost impossible in the case of Senator Collins, whose standing in Maine may be insurmountable.

But some, like Senator Graham, are already seeing stirrings of a primary challenger, “grand bargain” or not.

“If you’re looking to the horizon of 2014, you know, the sun may rise over South Carolina,” sais Chris Chocola, president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters in September.

Sal Russo, a conservative strategist allied with Tea Party Express, one of the largest tea party groups, says a broad insurgency from the right, tied to fury over tax hikes in a "grand bargain," isn’t out of the question.

“If [conservative votes] see that raising taxes is part of the solution, they’re going to have a lot of problems in 2014,” he says.

Still, vulnerable Republican lawmakers might be able to find a way to finesse a deal so that the party’s conservative base isn't calling for their heads afterward, says Mr. Russo.

“If you get into some of the loophole-closing and how that revenue is used, can you get to a gray area that might leave people muttering but not fire-hot?” he wonders. “That would be interesting to see.”

Could 2014 be a Democratic “bloodbath”?

For Republicans, the sticking point is giving ground on taxes. For Democrats, it's making changes to entitlement programs, such as Medicare, that increase the age of eligibility or scale back benefits. If that were to happen as part of the debt-reduction deal, it could mean a "bloodbath" for Democratic incumbents up for reelection in 2014, say GOP activists.

“I think 2014 will be a real bloodbath for the Democrats if they stayed in power, because the next two years America faces some serious fiscal problems,” says Russo. “And there is no easy way out.”

That cocktail of entitlement changes and tax increases can’t look enticing to six Democratic senators running for reelection in states certain to be carried by Romney and three others who sit in battleground territory.

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