WASHINGTON – Democrats are discovering that maintaining control of the U.S. Senate in the November elections could prove to be a rather ambitious task, particularly with the political map favoring Republicans and many of the issues now falling into the GOP’s lap as well.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to wrest control of the upper chamber from the Democrats. Making the job easier, perhaps, is the manner in which the contests are lined up – Democrats have to defend seven seats in states that were captured by unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
That, combined with a general public discontent with the manner in which events are playing out in Washington, D.C., could play into GOP hands.
There are plenty of issues on the line in the 2014 midterms from the economy to healthcare to immigration, but undoubtedly the most significant is President Obama and widespread dissatisfaction with his job performance.
Gallup places Obama’s most recent weekly average job approval rating at 40 percent, low even for presidents entering the final two years of a second term. The average for a president during his 23rd quarter in office is 47 percent, according to the polling firm. Former President George W. Bush, who saw his popularity sink as his tenure drew to a close, had an approval rating of 42 percent at this time.
The Obama effect seems to be particularly prominent in Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is not only seeking to become the first member of the upper chamber from the Bluegrass to win a sixth term but, if the die roll right, the majority leader.
McConnell finds himself in a tight contest against the Democrat, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and his organization is constantly warning that Grimes will be little more than a rubber stamp for Obama policies.
“Plain and simple, the primary reason Alison Lundergan Grimes is raising hoards of cash is because she’s Obama’s Kentucky candidate, and his liberal pals will pull out every stop to fill her campaign coffers with their anti-Kentucky dollars in an effort to unseat Sen. McConnell,” said Kelsey Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Republican Party. “The Obama liberals, radical environmentalists, and Hollywood elite are determined to enact their liberal policies, and they know that electing Grimes ensures their anti-coal, anti-gun, and outrageous tax-and-spend agenda succeeds.”
The attack appears to be having some effect on Democrats running in Republican states. When Obama visited North Carolina on Aug. 26, Sen. Kay Hagan was there to greet him. But there were no plans for a meeting, no appearance where they sat next to each other, and her staff made it known in advance that she planned to use the limited time with the president pressing him on veterans’ issues – a major concern in the military-conscious Tar Heel State.
Hagan is locked in a tight re-election battle with North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican who, like McConnell, is stressing Hagan’s ties to Obama. The RealClearPolitics polling average has the race in a virtual dead heat.
“After rubber-stamping the Obama liberal agenda for the past six years, is Kay Hagan finally going to appear in public with the president to let all of North Carolina know how proud she is to support him?” William Allison, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, asked in a statement before the president’s arrival.
Midterm elections like this one almost always hinge on the perception of the sitting president and his job performance. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent say they are “pessimistic and worried” while 19 percent maintain they are “uncertain and wondering.” Only 17 percent told pollsters that they are “optimistic and confident” – a real problem for Democrats.
While Obama looms large over the 2014 campaign, an issue the GOP seemed to be banking on hard earlier appears to have settled down – opposition to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Republicans are still calling for its repeal but they’re not yelling it quite as loud as they once were. Particularly ticklish is the portion of the law that expanded Medicaid, the national healthcare program intended to address the needs of the underprivileged to 136 percent of the poverty level. McConnell, among others, continues to call for repeal but acknowledges killing the Medicaid changes could be dicey, depriving hundreds of thousands of their newly won healthcare benefit.
In Arkansas, for instance, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, the Democrat, is locked in a tight race with GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who has a slim 2.4 percent edge, according to RealClearPolitics.
Pryor is not running away from his vote in support of Obamacare. In fact, he highlighted his support in a campaign ad. Cotton continues to oppose most aspects of the law but he has grudgingly declared his support for some provisions – like prohibiting insurance companies from covering individuals with pre-existing conditions.
A survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, released earlier this month, shows potential dangers on all sides of the Obamacare issue. The poll found that 35 percent of likely voters this fall are more likely to vote for a member of Congress who supports the law. Only slightly more, 38 percent, said they are less likely to vote for an Obamacare supporter. Since the results are within the margin of error, the Obamacare question may be a wash in many districts but carry resonance in some states.
Immigration also was expected to have a significant influence on the vote, but Obama’s decision to delay any action addressing the porous southern border or dealing with the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens already residing in the country may have placed a cap on that – at least for the time being.
Immigration at one time was thought to provide an edge for Democrats, but it appears the worm has turned. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier this month established that 36 percent of those questioned are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Only 27 percent said a candidate is more likely to attract their support based on the issue.
Democrats running in red states were pleased with the White House decision to delay any immigration action, hoping it will remove the potentially voluble issue from the table. But it still seems to be drawing attention in some races.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, is running counter-intuitive for a Democrat on the immigration issue, accusing her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, of being soft on border security because he opposes continued efforts to complete a fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. A television ad touts Landrieu’s record, asserting that she “voted to double the Border Patrol, build triple-layer fencing, and voted nine times to block amnesty.”
The problem, as RealClearPolitics noted, is that Landrieu herself has voiced opposition to the fence.
“I voted for the dumb fence once,” she said in a 2013 speech on the Senate floor. “I’m not going to do it again because I learned my mistake when I went down there to look at it and realized that we could build two dumb fences or three dumb fences and it’s not working. So I am simply not going to waste the money to do something that I know will not work.”
That race in Louisiana is a virtual dead heat at this point with Cassidy, perhaps, holding the thinnest of advantages.
One area that is quickly emerging as a campaign issue that traditionally attracts little voter attention is foreign affairs. Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the ongoing crisis in Syria and the terrorist threat from ISIL have all grabbed headlines and the public’s attention, not to the benefit of Democrats.
The Obama administration is taking a beating on its foreign policy and Democratic candidates could pay the price. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows that only 35.4 percent approve of the way the president is handling things beyond the shore while 57.1 percent disapprove.
Republicans are trying to take advantage of the developing situation. Scott Brown, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts now running for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), ran a television ad linking her to Obama’s unpopular foreign policy. Shaheen, meanwhile, dispatched a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urging them “to do everything in your power to stop the flow of money and foreign fighters” to ISIL.
Discussions about foreign threats also have come up in the campaign for an open seat in Georgia where Republican businessman David Perdue has attempted to link Democrat Michelle Nunn to Obama’s foreign policy. Nunn has expressed support for military strikes in Syria and told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she wants the president to “quickly develop the right military strategy.”
But all these issues run far behind the granddaddy of them all – the economy and jobs. On that score, Republicans seem to maintain a distinct advantage, despite some concrete gains under the Obama administration.
According to the most recent figures, since January 2009 when Obama assumed office during a devastating recession, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed from 7,949 to over 17,000. Unemployment has dropped from 7.8 percent to 6.1 percent and the gross domestic product has gone from negative 5.4 percent to 4.2 percent in the second quarter. The Conference Board reported earlier this month that the Consumer Confidence Index reached 90.9 in July, up from 86.4 in June. It was 37.7 in January 2009.
Regardless, according once again to the RealClearPolitics average for polls taken from Aug. 4 to Sept. 9, Obama’s job approval for handling the economy sits at 40.1 percent – which is almost the same as his overall job approval rating. Disapproval sits at 56.1 percent.
The debate appears to be especially keen in Colorado where Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has repeatedly attacked Democratic Sen. Mark Udall for, in his view, the incumbent’s inaction on the economy.
“We have a situation where the Senate is killing good job ideas, the president is showing no leadership on the economy,” Gardner recently told the Washington Post, adding that the campaign is about “getting government out of the way and letting America work.”
Republican Dan Sullivan, up against incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska, asserted that the Obama administration “has failed to get the economy moving forward, resulting in one of the weakest recoveries from a recession in our nation’s history. Millions of Americans can’t find work.’’
With the national debt stretching to more than $17 trillion, Sullivan said, “Congress cannot continue to mortgage our children’s future. It’s reckless and irresponsible. We must enact sound fiscal policy that promotes innovation and job growth, reigns in federal spending and reforms the tax code.”
In Colorado, Udall maintains a three-point lead, but Alaska is nearly a dead heat with polls showing Sullivan with a 1.3 percent edge.
As in most campaigns, unexpected issues do arise. This year it appears to be about senatorial domiciles. Two years ago former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, lost a primary battle at least in part because he was rarely seen in the Hoosier State and didn’t have an official residence. This year two incumbents – Landrieu and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) – have fallen into that trap.
Landrieu is registered to vote out of a New Orleans residence she owns with her parents but she actually has lived in the District of Columbia with her family since 1997. A judge recently dismissed a lawsuit challenging her name appearing on the ballot because of the residency question. Roberts, meanwhile, acknowledged that he doesn’t own a home in Kansas and that the residence he lists as a voting address actually belongs to a couple of supporters and that he has “full access to the recliner” when he is in state.
Neither campaign is aided by the admission.