There is no question that the Republican Party’s brand is experiencing grievous damage. In fact, you would be quite believable if you were to suggest that the GOP has been making an active, masochistic effort to isolate itself from moderate, independent, and swing voters, further exacerbating all the problems with target constituencies that cost Mitt Romney the presidency and the GOP a national popular House vote victory.
Of course, there have been wave elections in the past, where large numbers of seats swung from one party to the other. Democrats benefited from such elections in 1958, 1964, 1974, 1982, 2006, and 2008, just as Republicans came out the big winners in 1966, 1980, 1994, and 2010. But history doesn’t argue for a repeat this time. Seven of these 10 wave elections were midterms, as 2014 will be. In every one of the seven, the party in the White House, not the opposition party, suffered.
There is reason to look at 2014 as unique. Democrats picked up net gains of 31 seats in 2006 and 21 seats in 2008. Between these two elections, they managed to pluck all but a few hardy Republicans from competitive districts. In 2010, Republicans returned the favor, with a net gain of 63 seats. In those three elections, each side pretty much removed the low-hanging fruit, leaving very few Democrats and Republicans in potentially marginal districts; neither party is in a position to easily gain many seats.
At The Cook Political Report, we have always said, given their structural advantages, House Republicans would pretty much need to self-destruct to lose control of the chamber. Today, they seem to be flirting with just that possibility, but the election is still more than a year away, and it is far too early to say that the House majority is at risk. Minimal net party change is still the most likely outcome, but we no longer forecast a GOP gain of two to seven seats; that swing could now just as plausibly go in Democrats’ direction.
If you take a look at any of the three major independent political analysts who look at individual races—Stuart Rothenberg’s Rothenberg Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and The Cook Political Report—you will find analyses explaining why it’s possible, but very unlikely, that the House will flip. Given current district lines, and the geographical “sorting out” that has taken place over the past three election cycles (Democrats tend to live in highly concentrated urban areas, “wasting” a lot of votes; Republican voters tend to be more broadly geographically distributed and thus more efficiently allocated), no one is very confident that a turnover will occur, although it could.
In the Senate, while the current standoff isn’t likely to help the GOP score a net gain of six Senate seats and win a majority in 2014, the six seats that will most probably determine whether the GOP succeeds are all in states Romney carried. Whatever the backlash in those states over the current shutdown and looming fiscal battles, it is more likely to be more muted than elsewhere in the country. Romney won big in the three states with the most-vulnerable Democratic open Senate seats: West Virginia by 27 points, South Dakota by 18 points, and Montana by 14 points. Likewise, the seats held by the four most vulnerable Democratic senators all went to Romney: Mark Pryor’s Arkansas by 24 points, Mary Landrieu’s Louisiana by 17 points, and Mark Begich’s Alaska by 14 points. Only in Kay Hagan’s state of North Carolina—Romney prevailed by 2 points in 2012 and President Obama narrowly won in 2008—could a plausible argument be made that a backlash against the GOP could make a real difference. At least in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana, the outcome is not likely to be determined by any particular pro-Democratic or anti-Republican tide.
The two Republican-held seats in real danger at this point are Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky and the open seat in Georgia. In Kentucky, where Romney won by 23 points, McConnell is more endangered by voters fed up with all of Washington than by any anti-GOP sentiment. The open seat in Georgia, where Romney won by only 8 points, could be where national factors have the potential to kick in; however, it seems that the most important factor for Republicans’ chances in the general election there is whether they choose a Ted Cruz-lite nominee.
With the election over a year away, most campaign pollsters are holding off until the dust settles. In a discussion among a group of pollsters Monday morning, all took a “wait-and-see” approach. One prominent Republican pollster put it in an emailed response: “I don’t think we’re going to lose any Republicans on [the shutdown]. I don’t think the Democrats will lose any Democrats on it. I think independents dislike Obamacare but don’t want to use defunding, let alone a shutdown. So it hurts in the center. In the center, the primary reaction will be: a pox on all their houses; the secondary [reaction] will be R’s more to blame than D’s. But I think that is a distant second.”
The damage to the Republican Party appears to be more structural than immediate. The GOP is admittedly weaker but seems unlikely to crumble immediately. Republicans should worry about what is happening to their brand: what impressions they are building among new voters, what moderate and independent voters are taking away from this fight, and the long-term effects of these impressions in 2016 and 2020—and on the overall health of the party.
This article appears in the October 8, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Damage Control.