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How Good Could 2014 Be for GOP?

Several thoughtful political commentators, including Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics and Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia Center for Politics, have written articles this month suggesting that prospects for Republicans in Senate contests in 2014 are improving. Trende goes as far to suggest that in a wave year, if the GOP can avoid nominating self-destructive embarrassments like Todd Akin, the net pickup could reach 10 Senate seats. In 2010, the GOP gained seven seats, including Scott Brown’s special election victory in Massachusetts. Sabato thinks the chances of the GOP winning a net six seats, the number required to gain control on top of the 45 seats the party now holds, are about even.

As is often the case, political writers catch one trend that has just run its course, while another may already be underway. As Trende points out, the approval rating for the president is a good proxy for the national vote and Senate races. In recent cycles, Republican Senate candidates have underperformed their expected vote share based on the president’s approval score (or in the case of presidential election years, the actual vote distribution at the presidential level in states with Senate races) by about 2%. In some cases, the underperformance was far worse. North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana are all states where GOP Senate candidates in 2012 who ran decent campaigns would have won easily, given the large topline margins for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in these states.

Trende has noted that GOP polling for 2014 Senate races has improved recently, as Obama’s approval score dipped to the 40% range. In 2012, when Democrats won several tight Senate races, Obama’s approval level by Election Day had reached the 50% level, a few points higher than earlier in the year, and this helped pull a few Democrats across the line. In the past few weeks, the Obama approval scores seem to have plateaued, and have even bounced up a few points to an average level of 43%. A three-point bounce, given how Trende has set up his algorithm, is worth about six points of margin in a Senate race.

Of course, there is some advantage to incumbency, particularly as it relates to fundraising and name recognition. If President Obama has a 40% approval rating in Louisiana, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who has won three consecutive close Senate elections, will be in a tight race again, whatever the president’s approval score in November. Similarly, Republican Susan Collins in Maine will far outperform the expected numbers for a generic Republican, or even for an average incumbent Republican, in a state Obama has won very easily two times.

While a great majority of House seats are not very competitive, especially after very effective redistricting by both Democrats and Republicans in states where one party completely controlled the process, Senate races have had a higher tendency to turn over in the past decade. The GOP has gone from 55 Senate seats after the 2004 election to 40 after the 2008 election, and then back up to 47 two years later (a number that would have been higher with better candidates in winnable races such as Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware that year).

In several states, the identity of one party’s candidate is not yet clear. This could have major implications in Georgia, where Akin-like contenders are in the GOP primary field for the open Senate seat, and Democrats have selected a near-ideal candidate (a moderate woman, the daughter of former moderate Democratic Senator Sam Nunn), which could turn a race that should lean GOP into a nail-biter.

In Iowa, a state that seemed likely to remain Democratic (the seat of retiring Senator Tom Harkin) now has various GOP contenders polling surprisingly close to the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley.

In New Hampshire, the entrance of Scott Brown into the race would turn a likely easy victory for incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen into a very competitive contest. This is also the case in Alaska, a Republican-leaning state with a vulnerable Democratic incumbent but a wide open GOP primary field.

Candidates matter a lot, as does the effectiveness of campaigns. Mitt Romney won North Dakota by nearly 20 points in 2012, but the open Senate seat went to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by 1%, after she pitched a very state-friendly message to voters, with large separation from the message of the unpopular Obama campaign.

The volatility of voter preferences is evidenced by Rasmussen showing an 11-point shift towards the Democrats in the last two months in the generic ballot for Congress, after a similarly large move to the Republicans in the prior six weeks. Republican fortunes dipped sharply with the government shutdown and the threat of a debt default in the first two weeks of October, but rose after the Obamacare rollout disaster and a steady trickle of bad news about various features of the program, all requiring administration fixes of one kind or another.

The biggest PR disaster for the president and his party was the oft-repeated lie that under the Affordable Care Act, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance, and if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. Even the Obama-friendly media had a hard time minimizing the damage and covering up these particular lies.

Early efforts by Republicans to establish a message in states with competitive Senate races and competitive House districts have been all about Obamacare. Republicans seem to think they can ride this one right through the year to big victories in November. Obamacare never enjoyed majority support among voters, and now is deep underwater according to its approval score.

The big question politically will be whether the program stabilizes over the next few months or whether there will be a steady trickle of new bad news. It is likely that if Obamacare remains a big story, even the biggest story for much of the year, and the news is mostly bad, the president’s approval numbers will stay soft and Republicans will do well in November. They will likely win most of the closest races, plus a few from among Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, and Iowa, and hold their two most vulnerable seats in Georgia and Kentucky.

On the other hand, Democrats are not standing still.

Their voter identification and contact effort ran circles around the Romney campaign’s in 2012, and the Obama campaign’s technology investment was maintained and is now assisting Democrats in the midterms. Democrats are working to limit the fall-off in turnout in midterm elections among their base voters -- single women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians -- by blasting out the old workhorse messages: the Republicans’ “War on Women" and voter suppression efforts.

Democrats did a good job with candidate selection in some of the open seat races in Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, and West Virginia, though they are still likely to lose West Virginia and conceivably three or four from this group.

Larry Sabato, whose ratings change during the year, gives the GOP the edge for four pickups -- South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia and Arkansas -- and a 50% shot in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Alaska. He rates Democrats the favorites in Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire (as well as in longer-shot Colorado). Georgia is the most vulnerable Republican-held seat in this analysis.

Trende offers a word of caution for Republicans. They had best do very well in 2014, since 2016 could be a very bad year for the party. Maybe four to six GOP-held seats won in the GOP wave in 2010 could be highly vulnerable, and incumbents will be running for their first re-election in a more Democrat-friendly presidential election year.