Democratic Senate Seats Might Prove Hard to Keep

Democrats should brace for the worst in the upcoming midterm elections — then hope to be pleasantly surprised.

US President Barack Obama walks to the podium to speak on the Affordable Care Act at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2014. Obama cheered seven million people who signed up for insurance under his health care law, and lashed out at political foes who he said were bent on denying care to Americans. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
April 7, 2014, 5:50 p.m.

When people sug­gest that one elec­tion will be ex­actly like an­oth­er, I re­call a les­son my good friend, polit­ic­al eco­nom­ist Tom Galla­gh­er, taught me about his­tor­ic­al par­al­lels. Tom would of­ten quote Mark Twain’s line that “his­tory does not re­peat it­self, but it does rhyme.” The truth is that while no two elec­tions are truly alike, they can share some sim­il­ar­it­ies, par­tic­u­larly if you don’t look too closely at the de­tails.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing — gen­er­ally boun­cing around between 43 per­cent and 45 per­cent — is about where it was go­ing in­to the 2010 midterms, when Demo­crats suffered dev­ast­at­ing losses of 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Sen­ate. But many oth­er cur­rent cir­cum­stances aren’t quite like 2010. In 2006, Demo­crats picked up 31 House seats, and then an­oth­er 21 in 2008, set­ting the party up for big House losses in 2010. Since those 2010 losses, Demo­crats picked up only eight House seats in 2012, so in 2014 they aren’t car­ry­ing a huge num­ber of seats in dif­fi­cult dis­tricts. Put­ting aside the fact that 96 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic House mem­bers are in dis­tricts that Obama car­ried in 2012, a ba­sic ax­iom in polit­ics is that you can’t lose a seat that you’ve already lost. Hav­ing lost so many seats in 2010, Demo­crats can’t lose them again.

In 2006, Pres­id­ent Bush had just a 38 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing, equi­val­ent to the low end of the range of ap­prov­al that Obama has had in re­cent months. Worth not­ing is that on bad days, Obama’s Gal­lup ap­prov­al rat­ing is 38 or 39 per­cent; on good days, it’s 45 or 46 per­cent. Over­all, he’s av­er­aging 41 per­cent but has been creep­ing up a couple of points over the last month or so.

In the 2006 elec­tion, Bush’s party lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Sen­ate. It’s dif­fi­cult to see the party op­pos­ite the pres­id­ent pick­ing up 30 House seats this time around, but six seats in the Sen­ate is en­tirely pos­sible, some say likely.

What makes 2014 unique is how many Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate seats are in en­emy ter­rit­ory; in­deed, the GOP could win back the cham­ber simply by pick­ing up Demo­crat­ic seats in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more in 2012. In some ways, the situ­ation this year is ana­log­ous to 1986, Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s second-term midterm elec­tion. In that elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans lost eight Sen­ate seats, drop­ping them from a 53-47 seat ma­jor­ity to a 45-55 seat de­fi­cit af­ter­ward. Quite simply, Re­agan’s 10-point land­slide over Pres­id­ent Carter six years earli­er, when those Sen­ate seats had last been up, swept in a net gain of a dozen Sen­ate seats and 34 House seats for Re­pub­lic­ans. In the fol­low­ing House elec­tion in 1982, Re­pub­lic­ans lost 26 seats, just over two-thirds of their 1980 gains. Moreover, in the 12-seat Sen­ate GOP gain of 1980, some pretty weak Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged to get reelec­ted and were slaughtered when they were next up be­fore voters in 1986 without Re­agan at the top of the tick­et.

In the case of Demo­crats in 2014, it is not so much that they are weak polit­ic­ally — for the most part they aren’t — but rather that they are run­ning in states that are very dif­fi­cult for their party to hold. These seats only fell in­to Demo­crat­ic hands in the first place when Obama was de­feat­ing John Mc­Cain in 2008. In 1986, Re­pub­lic­an ex­pos­ure was the weak­ness of the party’s in­cum­bents; in 2014, Demo­crats’ weak­ness lies in the loc­a­tion of where their in­cum­bents are run­ning.

My Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port col­league Dav­id Wasser­man has come to call this elec­tion en­vir­on­ment “2010 Lite.” He sees this as an en­vir­on­ment that is tough for Demo­crats, but per­haps a bit less tough than 2010, with dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances and min­im­al ex­pos­ure to losses in the House, but great­er ex­pos­ure in the Sen­ate. Al­though Obama’s num­bers might be about the same as in 2010, the Re­pub­lic­ans’ brand dam­age might off­set it a touch. As in 2010, the Af­ford­able Care Act, the pres­id­ent’s sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment, is front and cen­ter. Some polls in­dic­ate the law is less un­pop­u­lar, though for every poll that shows the ACA num­bers im­prov­ing, two show the pub­lic’s feel­ings re­main­ing un­changed. At best, one can say that the im­prove­ment is in­con­clus­ive; mark me down as a skep­tic.

Demo­crats are pop­ping corks over ACA sign-ups hit­ting the 7 mil­lion mark, but con­sider that this fig­ure is only a bit above 2 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, and that the 7 mil­lion fig­ure may in­clude a de­cent per­cent­age of people who had cov­er­age either through an em­ploy­er or through a plan that was can­celed. Pre­tend­ing that the ACA is not go­ing to be a li­ab­il­ity this year would be ill-ad­vised. Even con­sid­er­ing that some people may like and be­ne­fit from the new law, the en­thu­si­asm and in­tens­ity in this elec­tion is all on the Re­pub­lic­an side, and that is very un­likely to change.

Polit­ic­al con­sult­ant and former Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Polit­ic­al Dir­ect­or Tom King, ac­know­ledging the tough en­vir­on­ment for his party, sug­ges­ted that this is a year when every Demo­crat — cer­tainly every single one in a po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive race — had bet­ter “put to­geth­er their A game,” pre­pare for the worst, and hope that they are pleas­antly sur­prised.

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