Running Against Obama, Republicans Positioned for Midterm Sweep

Most of the battleground Senate races are trending in the GOP’s direction, while Democrats are playing defense in the House.

Mitch McConnell is interviewed in his Senate Minority leader office in the capitol on Thursday, June 9, 2011.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 20, 2014, 4 p.m.

In base­ball, not long ago, there was a long-stand­ing feud between scouts and num­ber-crunch­ing saber­met­ri­cians. Base­ball tra­di­tion­al­ists res­isted the in­flux of new think­ing in­to the game, while the data gurus too of­ten ad­op­ted a dog­mat­ic po­s­i­tion that num­bers al­ways trumped per­son­al re­port­ing and ob­ser­va­tion. It quickly be­came ob­vi­ous that the most suc­cess­ful teams are the ones that util­ized a hy­brid mod­el—the best in scout­ing and stat­ist­ics—and the Money­ball war in base­ball sub­sided.

That’s not all that dif­fer­ent from what’s hap­pen­ing in polit­ics, where arm­chair pun­dits and num­ber-crunch­ing con­gres­sion­al-race model­ers fre­quently ove­rhype the latest polls, while down­play­ing the broad­er en­vir­on­ment. They’re dir­ectly re­lated. The lead­ing fun­da­ment­als of an elec­tion—pres­id­en­tial ap­prov­al, right track/wrong track, and the con­gres­sion­al gen­er­ic bal­lot, among them—are like “park ef­fects” in base­ball. If a hit­ter is play­ing in the thin air of Den­ver’s Co­ors Field, it’s much easi­er to hit a home run. Like­wise, in a polit­ic­al land­scape where the pres­id­ent is deeply un­pop­u­lar, it’s much easi­er for the mes­sages of the oth­er party’s chal­lengers to res­on­ate, even if they’re run­ning weak­er cam­paigns.

In Ju­ly, I wrote that the odds of a na­tion­al­ized elec­tion were grow­ing be­cause of that worsen­ing en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats. Back then, there were clear signs that the red-state races were tilt­ing in the GOP’s dir­ec­tion, while Re­pub­lic­ans were run­ning sur­pris­ingly strong cam­paigns in swing states. Those trends have only so­lid­i­fied since then. The na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment can change over time—few could have pre­dicted a pan­ic over Ebola in the sum­mer, for ex­ample—but it was hard to see the is­sues drag­ging down the pres­id­ent and his party sub­sid­ing by the fall. Now, it’s be­com­ing likely that Re­pub­lic­ans will win more than the six seats ne­ces­sary to re­take con­trol of the Sen­ate.

Throughout this elec­tion cycle, the Demo­crats have been dogged by the pres­id­ent’s health care law. Dis­sat­is­fac­tion over Obama­care, com­poun­ded by its dis­astrous rol­lout, sent the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ings tum­bling. They haven’t re­covered. The law’s pop­ular­ity hasn’t im­proved since then, even with the ad­min­is­tra­tion delay­ing un­pop­u­lar pro­vi­sions un­til after the midterm elec­tions. When Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors spent time strategiz­ing on how to in­ocu­late them­selves from their past sup­port of the law in­stead of de­fend­ing it, it was clear that this would long re­main a vul­ner­ab­il­ity for the party. In­deed, des­pite con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that health care has di­min­ished as a top is­sue in the midterms, it’s still (by far) the dom­in­ant theme in Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al cam­paign ads, ac­cord­ing to The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port‘s Eliza­beth Wil­ner. Not only does it mo­bil­ize angry Re­pub­lic­an voters, but it per­suades dis­af­fected in­de­pend­ents as well.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, sup­port for the health care law isn’t far from its all-time low, with 36 per­cent sup­port­ing and 48 per­cent op­pos­ing (a whop­ping 43 per­cent op­pos­ing strongly). After the health care web­site de­bacle in Decem­ber 2013, 34 per­cent sup­por­ted and 50 per­cent op­posed. Its po­tency as an is­sue isn’t too far off from 2010, an elec­tion where Re­pub­lic­ans made his­tor­ic gains in the House. Be­fore the 2010 midterms, 36 per­cent of voters lis­ted health care as one of their top two is­sues. Now, it’s at 30 per­cent, rank­ing be­low eco­nom­ic growth, par­tis­an grid­lock, and mil­it­ary ac­tion against IS­IS—but still a po­tent cam­paign theme.

Over the sum­mer, worsen­ing for­eign policy was also an is­sue that looked bound to get worse for Demo­crats, not bet­ter. Pres­id­en­tial speeches and prom­ises can only do so much in com­bat­ing the real­ity of ter­ror­ists gain­ing ground in the Middle East and Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin mak­ing a land grab in east­ern Ukraine. As George W. Bush learned in his pres­id­ency, when events turn bad over­seas, it’s rare that they im­prove quickly. Pres­id­ent Obama is now talk­ing about de­feat­ing IS­IS in terms of dec­ades, not months or years. The lim­ited air­strikes in Ir­aq and Syr­ia have only had a lim­ited ef­fect, with the ter­ror­ist group creep­ing closer to Bagh­dad des­pite the U.S ef­forts. As a res­ult, the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ings on for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity—a first-term strength—have dropped to at or near all-time lows, and haven’t re­covered much with his prime-time ad­dress.

All told, the cas­cad­ing num­ber of con­tro­ver­sies and scan­dals in the pres­id­ent’s second term has fed in­to the per­cep­tion that this ad­min­is­tra­tion is out of its depth in do­ing its primary job: man­aging gov­ern­ment. And that’s not good for Demo­crats, both the party in power and the party as­so­ci­ated with an act­iv­ist fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The dom­in­ant theme in the cam­paign’s fi­nal month is Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates strug­gling to dis­tance them­selves from the pres­id­ent, from Arkan­sas Sen. Mark Pry­or’s awk­ward as­sess­ment of the pres­id­ent’s hand­ling of the Ebola crisis to Ken­tucky Sen­ate can­did­ate Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes’s re­fus­al to dis­cuss whom she voted for in the 2012 elec­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans now are po­si­tioned to net between six and nine Sen­ate seats in the up­com­ing midterms, with the high­er end look­ing more likely. Most of the battle­ground Sen­ate con­tests are now either trend­ing in a Re­pub­lic­an dir­ec­tion or re­main­ing stable with a GOP ad­vant­age. Trail­ing in the North Car­o­lina Sen­ate race throughout much of the fall, Re­pub­lic­an Thom Tillis has lately put Sen. Kay Hagan on the de­fens­ive by con­nect­ing her to the pres­id­ent’s man­age­ment of the IS­IS threat and the out­break of Ebola. In Col­or­ado, GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner has led in all of the six pub­lic polls re­leased in Oc­to­ber, with leads ran­ging from 2 to 6 points. Early vot­ing data out of Iowa is look­ing fa­vor­able for Re­pub­lic­an Joni Ernst, con­sist­ent with pub­lic polls show­ing her with a small ad­vant­age. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port re­cently moved the New Hamp­shire race between Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Re­pub­lic­an Scott Brown in­to toss-up status, in­dic­at­ive of polling show­ing Shaheen still ahead but with a rap­idly nar­row­ing lead. Out­side of Kan­sas, polit­ic­al ana­lyst Stu­art Rothen­berg now has Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing an edge in all the red-state races, re­flect­ing a na­tion­al­ized en­vir­on­ment against the party in power.

Demo­crats are hop­ing to upend the rough en­vir­on­ment in con­ser­vat­ive states like Kan­sas, Geor­gia, and South Dakota. All those GOP-held seats fea­ture Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates who have run weak races. Thanks to ef­fect­ive ads tar­get­ing Dav­id Per­due’s his­tory of out­sourcing (and his ham-handed re­sponses to the at­tacks), Demo­crat Michelle Nunn holds the mo­mentum in the Geor­gia Sen­ate race, though it’s still likely to head in­to a Janu­ary run­off. A late Demo­crat­ic in­vest­ment in South Dakota is keep­ing the four-way race com­pet­it­ive, but GOP re­in­force­ments should push former Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mike Rounds over the fin­ish line. Even Sen. Pat Roberts of Kan­sas, who has run a dis­mal cam­paign, has got­ten some late trac­tion against in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate Greg Or­man, thanks to a flurry of out­side GOP in­volve­ment. In a neut­ral en­vir­on­ment, Demo­crats would hold a good shot at an up­set or two. But in a na­tion­al­ized midterm, Re­pub­lic­ans should catch breaks in states where the fun­da­ment­als fa­vor them.

All the trend lines in the House fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans, as well. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee pulled their ad­vert­ising in races that were ex­pec­ted to be among their most win­nable, in­clud­ing against Rep. Mike Coff­man Col­or­ado, Rep. Dan Ben­ishek of Michigan, and Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate Bar­bara Com­stock—mov­ing the money to pro­tect blue-dis­trict in­cum­bents. Out­side Re­pub­lic­an groups are now spend­ing mil­lions on solidly Demo­crat­ic turf, in­clud­ing dis­tricts in New York, Cali­for­nia, and Hawaii where Obama won by com­fort­able mar­gins. One seni­or House Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cial told Na­tion­al Journ­al that in­tern­al polling in Iowa shows Ernst lead­ing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Bruce Bra­ley in all three of the state’s battle­ground seats, mak­ing it chal­len­ging for down­bal­lot House can­did­ates to put away win­nable races—even in Iowa’s Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing dis­tricts.

Put it all to­geth­er, and it paints the pic­ture of a na­tion­al­ized elec­tion fa­vor­ing the GOP. Demo­crats are hyp­ing their su­per­i­or turnout ef­forts, a sim­il­ar ar­gu­ment to what Re­pub­lic­ans em­ployed be­fore los­ing the House and Sen­ate in 2006—and not (yet) backed up by the early vot­ing evid­ence. While even Re­pub­lic­ans are avoid­ing pre­ma­ture talk of a “wave” elec­tion, those type of la­bels of­ten be­come ap­par­ent after the fact.

With anxi­ety over Ebola run­ning high, re­newed fears of ter­ror­ism, and most Amer­ic­ans not feel­ing se­cure eco­nom­ic­ally, it doesn’t take much ima­gin­a­tion to see how voters could de­cis­ively pun­ish the gov­ern­ing party. Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated their strongest slate of Sen­ate can­did­ates in at least a dec­ade, and are be­ne­fit­ing from the fickle pub­lic mood. When Demo­crats are re­ly­ing on win­ning races they wer­en’t even plan­ning to con­test in South Dakota and Kan­sas, it speaks volumes about the state of play two weeks be­fore Elec­tion Day.


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