President Obama and the Democrats clearly have had a case of the winter blues that could well carry over into the fall elections. Republican David Jolly’s upset win in a Florida special election in a district that President Obama had carried twice is a warning sign that it will be extremely difficult for Democrats to re-take the House of Representatives – and Democratic control of the US Senate is now in even more jeopardy. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus is now gleefully predicting a GOP tsunami that will wash over the entire country, Red, Purple and Blue states alike. Michael Barone, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, titled a column after the Florida election “Democrats are going down with Obama-Care” and compared them to the French generals who quickly lost to the German Army in 1940.
And Americans are generally in a foul mood: every independent survey in the first quarter of 2014 showed that by margins of at least 2-1, voters believed that the country was on the wrong track. With the President’s job approval consistently below 50% in 2014, the voters will likely take out their discontent on his party.
Mid-term elections are historically a forum for the opposition: in over 85% of off-year elections in the past century, the President’s party has lost seats. To govern is to choose as the old saying goes, and choosing policies invariably creates opposition that shows up in the next mid-term election. Beyond history, the Democrats have more Senate seats to defend this year (21 compared to 15 for Republicans). Even worse, 7 Democratic Senate seats – in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia – are up in states carried by Mitt Romney two years ago with Republicans needing a net gain of six to take Senate control. So, it was always the longest of long-shots for Democrats to make gains this year. The historical odds already favored a Republican win in 2014 – and they still do. The question is: will the GOP win big or small?
The early polls point to a sizable Republican edge: in the “generic” question on which party voters want to see controlling Congress, the Democrats have not been above 50% since the government shutdown went badly for Republicans last fall. And undecided voters often break against the President’s party in the end. As of this writing, Republicans clearly have the advantage. To guess the size of their possible victory, we can try answering these 14 key questions….
1. Will the “Six-Year-Itch” Continue?
Historically, mid-term elections in the sixth year of a party’s control of the White House have often seen big losses: in 1918, the Democrats lost both Houses of Congress after World War I, FDR’s Democrats lost over 70 House and 7 Senate seats in the recession of 1938 amid a controversy over FDR’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court with Democratic appointees, the Republicans lost 48 House seats and 13 in the Senate in the sharp recession of 1958, the Democrats dropped 47 in the House in 1966 due to Vietnam and race riots,
Republicans lost 48 House seats in the 1974 Watergate election and Democrats took both Houses back in 2006 during George W. Bush’s second term. The reason for these defeats is that an Administration usually runs out of steam in the second term and voters are less forgiving of policy errors. With the various Obama-Care problems, Middle East turmoil and a stagnant economy, the potential for Democratic losses in the Senate is large. Expert handicapper Charlie Cook rates only two Republican Senate seats as vulnerable while he sees at least eight Democratic seats as in trouble.
2. Will The Tea Party Keep Winning GOP Primaries?
Since 2009, when grass-roots conservatives began to organize in opposition to the President’s health care plan and housing bailouts, “Tea Party” candidates have repeatedly upset the Republican Establishment in primaries, most famously Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and in Indiana when six-term incumbent Richard Lugar lost. This year, the most prominent Tea Party effort is in Kentucky where a staunch conservative, businessman Matt Bevin is seeking to oust Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (after 30 years in the Senate). Other GOP primary races to watch are Mississippi where six-term Senator Thad Cochran is only slightly ahead of State Senator Chris McDaniel and in Georgia where former Secretary of State Karen Handel just won the support of Sarah Palin in an open-seat race.
3. Will Tea Party Candidates Keep Losing General Elections?
While Tea Partiers may be winning Republican primaries, they’ve often lost general elections. Republican analyst Tony Quinn estimates that in 2010 and 2012, Tea Party Republican Senate candidates (O’Donnell, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana) cost Republicans five winnable elections – and possibly control of the US Senate. The question for 2014 is: are voters so fed that they’ll vote for even Tea Party Republicans to flip control of the Senate?
4. Will the Minority Vote Turn Out for Democrats?
Presidential elections always draw the highest turnout and those “extra” voters almost always by definition support the winner’s party. However, those “marginal” voters often fall off in mid-terms when the interest simply isn’t as high, thus hurting the incumbent president’s party. For example in 2008, the black share of the electorate was 13% and that figure dropped off to 11% in 2010 – when the Republicans re-took the House. However, the black vote jumped back up to 13% in 2012 and the Hispanic vote set a new record – a difference that helped re-elect President Obama narrowly.
If the historic pattern holds and the 2014 voters are more white and middle class than in 2012, Republicans will obviously be big beneficiaries.
5. Will Political Legacies Continue?
This year, a startling number of children who followed their parents into politics are running again, especially among Democratic Senators. In Arkansas, Senator Mark Pryor (who holds the Senate seat of his father David), is seeking a third term in a very tough Red State battle. In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu (whose father and brother both served as Mayor of New Orleans) also faces a tough re-election in a conservative Southern state. In Colorado, Senator Mark Udall, (son of popular Arizona Representative Mo) now faces tough sledding in his re-election fight, while his cousin Tom (son Interior Secretary Stuart Udall) in New Mexico is expected to win more easily.
Up in Alaska, first-term Senator Mark Begich (whose father once represented Alaska in the House) will also have an uphill fight in a very Red state. In Kentucky, Allison Grimes, the daughter of a former Democratic State Chairman, is running even with GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell in recent polls, while in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, (the daughter of Senate power Sam Nunn) is also running a close race for her father’s former seat. In Georgia, Democrats are hoping for a “Return of the Jimmy” as President Carter’s grandson Jason runs for Governor. And Republican “kids” are getting in on the act too: in West Virginia, Shelley Moore Caputo (daughter of three-time Governor Arch Moore) is a solid favor to win a Senate race, while in Texas, George P. Bush (son of Jeb) will be elected Texas Land Commissioner and presumably begin his national career.
6. Can women post major gains?
This year, women candidates will headline three of the most important races. In Kentucky, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Grimes is running even or slightly ahead of Mitch McConnell. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of legendary Senator Sam Nunn, has an even shot at an open US Senate seat according to early polls. And in Texas, Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, who gained national fame with a 2013 filibuster over abortion rights, starts out behind in that heavily Republican state, but hopes to attract female Republican and Independent “crossover” women votes to score the upset.
7. Can minorities post major gains?
The Senate’s two African-Americans – New Jersey’s Corey Booker and South Carolina’s Tim Scott – are expected to win easily – as are the nation’s two Hispanic governors – Republicans Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (whose family roots are in India) will win handily. In Maryland, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown (an Iraq war veteran) has an even shot at becoming that state’s first black governor. In California, Governor Jerry Brown leads a Democratic ticket that could include a Taiwanese-American (John Chiang for Treasurer), a black/Indo-American (Attorney General Kamala Harris), a Hispanic (Alex Padilla for Secretary of State) and either a Chinese or gay for Controller (Betty Yee or John Perez). In the Golden State at least, Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” lives on!
8. What will be the impact of retiring House veterans?
The seats of aging House bulls retiring – Michigan’s John Dingell (the longest-serving House member ever) and veteran liberal Californians Henry Waxman and George Miller (both part of the Watergate Democratic “Class of 1974) probably won’t change parties, but will leave a huge policy gap in health care and environmental policy. It is highly unlikely that their successors will be as effective as they were.
9. Can the Democrats crack the South?
The Democrats’ best chance for a Southern comeback is in Georgia where the Carter and Nunn dynasties are currently running – in the only state where Jimmy Carter received a majority in his 1980 landslide loss. And in (of course) the ultimate battleground state of Florida, Republican-turned-Democrat former Governor Charlie Crist is locked in a tight race with Gov. Rick Scott.
10. Can the Democrats gain seats anywhere?
Beyond Florida and Georgia, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett was caught up in the Penn State child abuse scandal and is definitely vulnerable. And in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage won last time with less than 40% and could lose without independent help.
11. Will gay rights continue to surge (and win a few referendums)?
From 1998 to 2009, gay marriage lost at the ballot box everywhere except Arizona (and the Grand Canyon State had already outlawed gay marriage through the Legislature). In 2004, a huge turnout from social conservatives sparked by a gay marriage ballot proposal in Ohio is widely believed to have re-elected President Bush in that crucial state. Even in socially liberal California, voters narrowly rejected gay marriage in a 2008 proposition despite Obama carrying the state easily.
Since then, there been a sea change in public opinion on gay rights: according to the Gallup Poll, voters opposed same-sex marriage by 42-56% in 2006; by 2013, support for gay marriage was now ahead by 54-43%. Earlier this year, opposition from business convinced Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a bill that some gay rights activists believed was discriminatory. Since 2010, same-sex marriage has been approved by voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State. This year, gay marriage referendums are scheduled (so far) for Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon. The guess here is that gay rights will win in Illinois and Oregon.
12. How will 2014 impact Obama-Care’s future?
A huge Republican win in the Senate would embolden conservatives to re-double their efforts to repeal the “Affordable Health Care Act.” And if that momentum carries over into a Republican president in 2016, Obama-Care will be in critical condition.
13. Will there be any “October or September Surprises” this year?
Needless to say, we live in very volatile times: with the Internet, the 24-hour cable news cycle and talk radio, voters can process information and change their minds quicker than ever in what is known as “Faster Politics.” An unforeseen event – war in the Middle East, an oil shock, a stock market crash, a scandal, a sudden economic boom – could tip the 2014 election.
14. Most importantly: How big will the Republican wave be?
A late break that causes voters to rally around the President may be the Democrats best hope for avoiding a big loss in 2014. Since Republicans are already far ahead in the House, the Senate is where the real action is. If minority turnout is low as in 2010, the Republicans will most likely win Senate seats in Red Romney states and perhaps a few swing states as well. Watch North Carolina where freshman Senator Kay Hagan was elected in 2008 with a huge black turnout inspired by President Obama. If she wins this year, the Democrats probably narrowly hold the Senate. If not….And if Democratic Senator Mark Udall loses in the “Purple” state of Colorado, the Republican sweep will be on.
A lot can change between now and November. An unexpected crisis or Republicans mistakes could rescue some endangered Democrats. But as of this writing, Republicans appear to hold most of the winning cards.