Both Parties Battle Long Odds in Quest to Capture New Majorities

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Dec. 2, 2013, 4:29 p.m.

The 2014 elec­tions are now 11 months away, but the polit­ic­al scene has already un­der­gone dra­mat­ic changes just in the past three months. Re­pub­lic­ans went in­to a polit­ic­al free fall after the gov­ern­ment shut­down, and shortly there­after Demo­crats plunged in­to boil­ing wa­ter thanks to the botched launch of and early pub­lic re­ac­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act. This column has cau­tioned against pre­ma­turely cast­ing either of these de­vel­op­ments as the de­fin­ing events of the cam­paign. There is a nat­ur­al hu­man tend­ency to be­lieve that any ma­jor de­vel­op­ment, no mat­ter how long be­fore an elec­tion, will be the last im­port­ant in­flu­ence on said elec­tion. This the­ory is fine in the last days be­fore an elec­tion, but with al­most a year to go, it is pretty un­likely that the na­tion­al polit­ic­al situ­ation will sud­denly be­come stat­ic for well over 300 days.

As Demo­crats at­tempt to gain the 17 seats they need to win a House ma­jor­ity and Re­pub­lic­ans work to­ward a six-seat net gain to cap­ture an equally im­port­ant Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, each side faces an up­hill slog — fight­ing in­er­tia as much as any­thing else. For House Demo­crats, the chal­lenge is that both parties have ef­fect­ively con­sol­id­ated their po­s­i­tions in the House, leav­ing little room for either party to make sig­ni­fic­ant gains. Between a his­tor­ic­ally low num­ber of com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts in play — 93 per­cent of House Re­pub­lic­ans oc­cupy dis­tricts car­ried by Mitt Rom­ney, and 96 per­cent of Demo­crats rep­res­ent Obama-won dis­tricts — the House is pretty much sor­ted out. There are few “fish-out-of-wa­ter” dis­tricts (mem­bers hold­ing seats that ought to be held by the oth­er party), along with only a few “jump ball” dis­tricts (where each side has more or less an equal chance of pre­vail­ing).

This curi­ous phe­nomen­on is the res­ult of a num­ber of factors. First, re­dis­trict­ing, car­ried out in an era of highly ef­fect­ive tech­no­logy and data­bases, has been con­duc­ted in such a way as to al­low the dom­in­ant party in each state to draw bound­ar­ies for op­tim­al per­form­ance at a level nev­er be­fore seen. Pop­u­la­tion sort­ing, oth­er­wise known as the “birds-of-a-feath­er-flock-to­geth­er” dy­nam­ic, is an­oth­er im­port­ant factor. Demo­crat­ic voters tend to live in urb­an areas and col­lege towns, while Re­pub­lic­ans are more of­ten found in the ex­urbs — small-town and rur­al Amer­ica. As our coun­try has be­come more po­lar­ized along polit­ic­al lines, we have be­come di­vided geo­graph­ic­ally as well. Fi­nally, the last four elec­tions have ef­fect­ively culled each party’s hold on dis­tricts they prob­ably shouldn’t have held in nor­mal polit­ic­al cir­cum­stances.

In the Sen­ate — now di­vided among 53 Demo­crats, two in­de­pend­ents who caucus with them, and 45 Re­pub­lic­ans — 10 seats will likely see most of the ac­tion; eight of these are held by Demo­crats, two by Re­pub­lic­ans. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats in the Sen­ate to cap­ture a ma­jor­ity. Re­pub­lic­ans have ex­cel­lent pro­spects to win open Demo­crat-held seats in Montana (Max Baucus), South Dakota (Tim John­son), and West Vir­gin­ia (Jay Rock­e­feller). Of course, Demo­crats could man­age to hold onto one or two seats, but at this point, that looks pretty un­likely. As­sum­ing Re­pub­lic­ans pick up those three Demo­crat­ic open seats, the GOP still needs to win three more from the re­main­ing five vul­ner­able seats Demo­crats hold. These in­clude in­cum­bents Mark Be­gich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (North Car­o­lina), Mary Landrieu (Louisi­ana), and Mark Pry­or (Arkan­sas), as well as an open seat in Michigan (Carl Lev­in). This as­sumes that Re­pub­lic­ans don’t lose either of their own vul­ner­able seats to Demo­crat­ic chal­lengers, those vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies be­ing Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell in Ken­tucky and the open seat in Geor­gia (Saxby Cham­b­liss). Mc­Con­nell is fa­cing both a rear-guard at­tack from a tea-party chal­lenger in the GOP primary and an ag­gress­ive gen­er­al-elec­tion op­pon­ent in Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes. The race between Mc­Con­nell and Grimes right now is es­sen­tially even, with about 10 per­cent of the elect­or­ate un­de­cided (pub­lic polls show sub­stan­tially high­er levels of un­de­cided Ken­tucky voters).

The up­hill battle Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans face is that even as­sum­ing they pick up Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia, and just for a mo­ment as­sum­ing that they hold onto both Mc­Con­nell and Cham­b­liss’s open seats (neither are safe as­sump­tions), the GOP would still have to de­feat two out of the four in­cum­bent Demo­crats (Be­gich, Hagan, Landrieu, and Pry­or) and win the open Michigan seat. If they fail the lat­ter, the GOP will have to beat three out of the four Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents. This chal­lenge to over­come in­er­tia comes in­to play for the GOP in two ways. First, over the past five elec­tions (2004-12), Demo­crats have un­seated 11 Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate in­cum­bents, while Re­pub­lic­ans have only de­feated three Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents: Tom Daschle (South Dakota), Russ Fein­gold (Wis­con­sin), and Blanche Lin­coln (Arkan­sas). De­pend­ing upon Michigan, the GOP must beat two or three in­cum­bents at min­im­um, something that has been very dif­fi­cult for the party as of late. Keep in mind that one of those five elec­tion years, 2010, was one of the best GOP years in mod­ern his­tory. The oth­er way to look at it is that even if Re­pub­lic­ans win Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia, they still need to win five out of the sev­en races that are not­ably ex­pec­ted to be the closest. Even in 2010 when Re­pub­lic­ans picked up a net gain of six seats, most of those were fore­gone con­clu­sions. The GOP lost five of the sev­en seats that The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port had rated as Toss Ups go­ing in­to Elec­tion Day that year. Last year, of the 10 races we had rated as Toss Up, Re­pub­lic­ans lost eight of them. So Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have had trouble de­feat­ing in­cum­bent Demo­crats and, for that mat­ter, win­ning the close races. In 2014, they have to do both.

COR­REC­TION: Due to an edit­ing er­ror, a pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly stated that the GOP needs six seats in the House to cap­ture a ma­jor­ity. In fact, the GOP needs a net gain of six seats in the Sen­ate to win a ma­jor­ity.

What We're Following See More »
LOTS OF STRINGERS
Inside the AP’s Election Operation
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
THE QUESTION
What’s the Average Household Income of a Trump Voter?
2 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seventy-two thousand dollars, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's higher than the national average, as well as the average Clinton or Sanders voter, but lower than the average Kasich voter.

Source:
VERY FEW DEMS NOW REPRESENT MINING COMMUNITIES
How Coal Country Went from Blue to Red
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
STAFF PICKS
History Already Being Less Kind to Hastert’s Leadership
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In light of his recent confessions, the speakership of Dennis Hastert is being judged far more harshly. The New York Times' Carl Hulse notes that in hindsight, Hastert now "fares poorly" on a number of fronts, from his handling of the Mark Foley page scandal to "an explosion" of earmarks to the weakening of committee chairmen. "Even his namesake Hastert rule—the informal standard that no legislation should be brought to a vote without the support of a majority of the majority — has come to be seen as a structural barrier to compromise."

Source:
‘STARTING FROM ZERO’
Trump Ill Prepared for General Election
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Even if "[t]he Republican presidential nomination may be in his sights ... Trump has so far ignored vital preparations needed for a quick and effective transition to the general election. The New York businessman has collected little information about tens of millions of voters he needs to turn out in the fall. He's sent few people to battleground states compared with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, accumulated little if any research on her, and taken no steps to build a network capable of raising the roughly $1 billion needed to run a modern-day general election campaign."

Source:
×