For the White House, November has been the cruelest month, with increasing worry among Democrats that a year from now could mean another midterm electoral disaster, similar to the results in 2010 when Republicans picked up over 60 House seats to gain control and netted six Senate seats as well.
Each day produces a new poll with terrible numbers for the president and his policies. The Obama approval level has dipped below 40% in several surveys in recent days, and yesterday hit an all-time low of 37% in a CBS poll — a survey that in the past has often been better than average for President Obama. Disapproval of the president in the CBS poll reached 57% — a record 20% negative gap. In one month, the president’s approval score has dropped by 9% in the CBS poll, a collapse mirrored in pretty much every survey where there is frequent polling.
In mid-October, the Republicans in Congress appeared to have damaged their chances in 2014 and muddied the party brand, with self-inflicted wounds created by very negative public reaction to the government shutdown and debt ceiling fight. President Obama’s approval numbers also suffered a bit from the bitter fight, but between the two parties, the Republicans in Congress were assigned far more blame than congressional Democrats. The generic ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives shifted from a small Democratic lead to a high single-digit margin for the Democrats in that two-week period in October, suggesting that GOP control of the House was in jeopardy. The leads of seven, eight, and nine points for the Democrats in October have now been eliminated, and for the first time since August, the Republicans are leading in the latest generic ballot tests.
The poll shifts are not happenstance, of course. The rollout of the president’s signature first-term “achievement,” the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare to pretty much everyone these days), has been a disaster. The Department of Health and Human Services produced a non-functioning website, failing after three and a half years of work to get one ready. The professionals who have been brought in to oversee a “fix” are now publicly stating that large parts of the site need to be redone or created. The designation of “incompetence” now hangs heavy over the White House, supposedly a hangout for the best and brightest. Worse, President Obama seems to have been disengaged and unaware of the calamity headed his way, publicly bragging in the days prior to the rollout about how easy the healthcare.gov website would be to navigate once the signup process went live on October 1.
Columnist Mark Steyn described the president’s AWOL behavior this way:
So, if I follow correctly, the smartest president ever is not smart enough to ensure that his website works; he’s not smart enough to inquire of others as to whether his website works; he’s not smart enough to check that his website works before he goes out and tells people what a great website experience they’re in for. But he is smart enough to know that he’s not stupid enough to go around bragging about how well it works if he’d already been informed that it doesn’t work. So he’s smart enough to know that if he’d known what he didn’t know he’d know enough not to let it be known that he knew nothing. The country’s in the very best of hands.
The president’s credibility suffered an even more severe blow when millions of Americans who already had health insurance policies in the individual market received cancellation notices from their insurer in October and November. That number now exceeds 5 million, and may be double that fairly soon if the administration’s own estimates from 2010 of the number who would be dropped prove to be accurate. President Obama, of course, is on the record dozens of times stating that no one who liked their insurance policy or their doctor would need to change either due to Obamacare. That was a bald-faced lie, regardless of what the New York Times calls it.
After several mealy-mouthed attempts at damage control, the president has now admitted there is a problem. He threw out a bone at his press conference last week, offering to relax the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act so that the plans he labeled “substandard” and “bad” could continue for another year, if insurance commissioners in the states went along and agreed to reissue what they had cancelled. In essence, the president was setting up a blame-shifting process, where insurance companies would become the bad guys, rather than the president and his dutiful servants in Congress who backed Obamacare legislation in 2010 and have defended it ever since.
Though a few open Republican seats in hotly contested districts could fall to Democrats, the Republican are once again favored to keep control of the House in 2014. Instead of playing defense over the government shutdown and threat of a debt default, Republicans will now use Obamacare as a cudgel in the political fights ahead. The CBS poll showed how strong this weapon might be, since support for the law registered at 31%, with 61% disapproval and new lows in approval of the law appearing in every new survey that is released.
A new ad from Americans for Prosperity is now targeting three vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014, and three vulnerable Democratic House members. It is virtually certain that this ad campaign will expand beyond the current Senate races in Alaska (Begich), Louisiana (Landrieu) and North Carolina (Hagan) — all states Obama lost in 2012. The ads are short and effective . Since every one of the 60 Democratic senators’ votes was needed to obtain passage of the law, the senators are more associated with the legislation than if it had passed on a bipartisan basis, or with votes to spare.
Until the last few weeks, most political analysts thought the chance that Republicans could pick up six seats in the 2014 midterms to take control of the Senate was unlikely, if not near impossible. While there were vulnerable incumbents and several open seats in red states, the GOP had shown a remarkable ability to blow winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012. They nominated hopeless candidates in primaries (e.g., Christine O’Donnell in Delaware) over candidates who had a far better shot at winning (Mike Castle). They picked extreme social conservatives (Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock) who self-destructed during the general-election campaign with comments on abortion and rape that appealed to a small minority even among the pro-life community. And they blew races that should have been laydowns (North Dakota in a year Romney won the state by almost 20%).
But today the landscape has visibly improved. The GOP is targeting seven seats in states Republicans won in the presidential race in 2012 — West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas (Pryor), Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Romney won by big margins in all but North Carolina, and the first three states on the list are open seats. The GOP would probably win a clear majority of these seven seats if elections were held today. It is now at least possible that the GOP could also spring an upset among Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire (Shaheen). The first two of these are also open-seat races, and there is lobbying going on to get Scott Brown to run in New Hampshire, where he has a home.
The GOP is not home free in defending its seats in 2014. Mitch McConnell will face a real challenge from a much younger Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is certain to replay the “GOP’s war on women” attack line that both President Obama and Terry McAuliffe employed so successfully in 2012 and 2013. A foolish NRSC staffer seemed to be busy at work this week making McConnell’s job much more difficult. McConnell will also have a conservative challenger in a primary.
In the open-seat race in Georgia, a few GOP congressmen in the Todd Akin mold are leading contenders to face off against Michelle Nunn, running as a moderate, in the image of her father, former Senator Sam Nunn. If the Republicans lose one of these two seats (they could lose both), they would need to win seven of the 10 races identified above.
If the Obamacare website remains a problem for months, rather than weeks, many potential enrollees, especially younger people, will likely not give it another chance. This could cause a major adverse-selection problem for insurance companies (sicker, older people will be most of those who sign up this year) and will be reflected in much higher premium rates proposed for 2015, numbers that will be revealed right before the 2014 midterms. As it is, in most cases even the lower premiums advertised on the exchanges for 2014 come with high deductibles. Next year will likely see high premiums and high deductibles. Dissatisfaction among those who lost their policies will continue, since there is no quick fix to this problem, and only blame-shifting going on. If the website fails to function soon, millions of those who had insurance may be without it for some period of time.
The Republicans have been smart to get out of the way the last month and let the Obamacare overreach, deceptions, and double talk play out on the public stage. This has worked far better than when their perceived obstructionism was the big political story in October. Whether Republicans can be smart politically on this and other matters will determine whether they can take advantage of a real opportunity in 2014.