The political chatter these days is about the special election in Florida's 13th Congressional District, which was held to fill the vacancy left by the late GOP Rep. Bill Young. The district is considered to be in a very competitive area of the country (indeed, President Obama won the 13th in 2012), and the seat was believed to be held securely by Republicans only by the strength of a longtime incumbent. The GOP had long feared that, without Young, it would have a difficult time holding the district. Even going into the campaign's final days, most observers thought Democrat Alex Sink, who came within an eyelash of being elected governor in 2010, would prevail over former Young aide David Jolly. This race was very important to Democrats in their push to maintain even the possibility of capturing the 17 seats needed for a House majority in 2014. To do so, they need to win competitive districts just like FL-13. While Sink was not considered a fabulous candidate, she was generally credited with being a superior candidate to Jolly, who toted the burdensome "lobbyist" label. Jolly's win—he took 48.5 percent to Sink's 46.7—is a huge psychological blow to House Democrats and a signal that Obama's low poll numbers and the Affordable Care Act's unpopularity will very likely cost Democrats seats. Virtually all of the most endangered Democratic Senate seats are in places a lot tougher for the party to win than FL-13.
This state of affairs naturally takes us into a conversation about seasons and cycles.
It's surprising how many people who avidly follow American politics don't seem to appreciate that elections are both seasonal and cyclical in nature.
The seasonal aspect is the more obvious one. Clearly in some years, or seasons, the wind is blowing in favor of one party. In other years, it appears to blow in the opposite direction. In others still, as during the time between seasons, the partisan winds do not seem to blow in any direction at all.
Unfortunately, the cyclical nature is lost on more people. In any given even-numbered year, the House is on a cycle of its own, the Senate another, and the governorships yet another. The easiest to identify is the House cycle; with its two-year terms, all you have to do is look at the previous election. If Democrats had a great year and picked up a large number of Republican seats, you know that Democrats are likely to be overexposed and to suffer losses in the coming election cycle. If Republicans had a banner year in the previous election, they are more likely to lose than to gain seats. It's all pretty straightforward.
In the Senate, with its six-year terms, it is necessary to look back three elections, to the last time that the current class was up for the voters' consideration. If one side had a more successful election six years earlier, that party likely will lose seats this time around. So, in 2014, we are looking at a group of seats last up in 2008. That was a year when President Bush's poll numbers were depleted by the Iraq War and his handling of Hurricane Katrina, and further depressed by the financial crisis and the country's subsequent tumble into a deep recession. The GOP suffered a net loss of eight seats that year. The Democratic success back then explains why the party has 21 seats up this year, including six in heavily Republican states, compared with only 15 GOP seats, only one of which is in a Democratic state.
Because 2010 was a terrific year for Republicans, the GOP will have 24 seats up in 2016, seven of which are in states carried by Obama in 2012. Democrats will have only 10 seats up that year, none in a state Obama carried by fewer than 5 points.
These cycles are very important but not entirely determinative. For example, 2006 was a terrific year for Democrats, so the 2012 election cycle—with 23 Democratic and only 10 Republican seats up—theoretically should have been a good year for the GOP. However, 2012 was a prime example of the seasonality of elections. Obama got reelected by nearly 4 percentage points; his state-of-the-art campaign operation maximized Democratic turnout in a presidential year, which normally favors Democrats more than do midterm elections, when the electorate tends to be older, whiter, and more Republican. Plus, Mitt Romney was no prize candidate for the top of the ticket. Making matters worse, Republicans nominated some rather exotic candidates in Indiana and Missouri, seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, and Republicans elsewhere sustained collateral damage. As a result, an election that once looked like an opportunity for Republicans to gain three seats and a Senate majority resulted in a net GOP loss of three seats, dropping the party's Senate roster to 45, six short of a majority.
Governors, most of whom serve four-year terms, are on yet a third cycle. The 2010 cycle was a horrific one for Democrats, who lost six governorships. This year, Republicans are generally overexposed in gubernatorial races, defending 22 seats to just 14 for Democrats. Nine of the Republican governorships (almost half) are in states Obama carried. Only one of the Democratic seats, Arkansas, is in a state where Romney prevailed in 2012.
Looking at this November's midterms, then, the wind certainly appears to be blowing in favor of Republicans. The main question is whether it is a light, moderate, strong, or hurricane-force wind. In terms of cycles, on the other hand, Democrats picked up just eight House seats in 2012, after having lost 63 seats in 2010 and having gained 52 seats in the solid Democratic years of 2006 and 2008 combined. The House is pretty much sorted out, and minimal change can be expected. Republicans look likely to pick up a handful of seats.
But because Republicans won so many governorships—23—in 2010, they should be prepared to lose seats this year. The only question that remains is to what extent the seasonal partisan winds and the GOP's midterm-election-turnout edge will offset a scenario otherwise favorable to Democrats. Right now, Cook Political Report Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy (who oversees both gubernatorial and senatorial coverage) predicts Democrats will net two to four governorships.
Both seasonal and cyclical forces are working against Senate Democrats, suggesting a really bad year for the party in the upper chamber. Duffy currently sees Republicans picking up four to six Senate seats. A bigger gain of seven or more seats is more likely for Senate Republicans this election than a smaller gain of three or fewer.
Crimea's Questionable Vote
This article appears in the March 15, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Cycling Through.
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