Congressional Democrats Face Uphill Battle in Midterms

The party’s chances of holding onto a majority in the Senate are looking increasingly tenuous.

Residents wait in line to pick up a ballot during early voting at the Black Hawk County Courthouse on September 27, 2012 in Waterloo, Iowa.
National Journal
March 3, 2014, 5:29 p.m.

At this point, eight months be­fore the Nov. 4 elec­tion, it’s hard to see a lot of good news for con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats.

No mat­ter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cata­clys­mic event for Demo­crats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the ma­jor­ity.

What’s changed is that Demo­crats’ chances of hold­ing onto their ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate is look­ing in­creas­ingly tenu­ous. There are now at least 10, and po­ten­tially as many as 13, Demo­crat­ic-held seats in jeop­ardy. By con­trast, only two GOP seats are in any mean­ing­ful danger, and that num­ber hasn’t changed in six months.

Things are start­ing to look grisly for Sen­ate Demo­crats. Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings av­er­age 41 per­cent, ba­sic­ally where Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s poll num­bers were at this point be­fore his own dis­astrous 2006 second-term, midterm elec­tion. And the Af­ford­able Care Act, Obama’s sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive and policy achieve­ment, is now even more un­pop­u­lar than it was in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber of 2010, when Demo­crats lost 63 seats, con­trol of the House, and a half-dozen Sen­ate seats. It doesn’t help that midterm elect­or­ates tend to be older and whiter than in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Obama’s cur­rent job-ap­prov­al rat­ings are also worse than they were in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber of 2010.

The two most likely le­gis­lat­ive land mines for Re­pub­lic­ans to step on between now and Elec­tion Day have been de­fused: The gov­ern­ment is now fun­ded, and Con­gress won’t need to lift the debt ceil­ing between now and Novem­ber. As a res­ult, it is not clear where the kind of break that Demo­crats need could emerge.

The Sen­ate’s play­ing field keeps get­ting lar­ger and, at least so far, en­tirely at Demo­crats’ ex­pense. Three of their seats are, to put it char­it­ably, up­hill chal­lenges. The open seats in South Dakota and West Vir­gin­ia are pretty much gone. In Montana, it’s un­clear wheth­er newly ap­poin­ted Sen. John Walsh is in any bet­ter po­s­i­tion, apart from fun­drais­ing, than he was when he was just the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor run­ning for an open seat. Between na­tion­al party com­mit­tees and su­per PACs, the amount of money raised by the can­did­ates and their cam­paigns means less than ever be­fore. With a hand­ful of people in each party ap­par­ently ready to spend $50 mil­lion to $100 mil­lion of their own money on be­half of their favored can­did­ates, a lot of things that used to be im­port­ant aren’t so much any­more.

Al­though it is get­ting sur­pris­ingly little at­ten­tion, Demo­crat Carl Lev­in’s open seat in Michigan is a toss-up; neither of the can­did­ates is par­tic­u­larly strong or well defined, but the nat­ur­al ad­vant­age that a Demo­crat in the Mo­tor State could be ex­pec­ted to have is likely off­set by ugly head­winds caused by ra­dio­act­ive Obama and ACA num­bers. The same can be said for Tom Har­kin’s open seat in Iowa. In both states, the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ees have Obama­care votes to de­fend, but the highly prob­lem­at­ic GOP nom­in­a­tion pro­cess in Iowa might well yield an exot­ic and un­elect­able con­tender.

Five Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents now face tough races, Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or is in the most chal­len­ging situ­ation, fol­lowed by Kay Hagan (North Car­o­lina), Mark Be­gich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (Louisi­ana), and Mark Ud­all (Col­or­ado). Ud­all be­came the latest ad­di­tion to the list when GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner an­nounced his can­did­acy Sat­urday. Also worth keep­ing a close eye on are Al Franken (Min­nesota); Jeanne Shaheen (New Hamp­shire), if former Sen. Scott Brown runs; and Mark Warner (Vir­gin­ia), who is as strong as a Demo­crat can be in that state but would be in trouble in the event of a melt­down. When there is a pres­id­ent with num­bers this bad, even in­cum­bents who might nor­mally be OK need to be watched care­fully, par­tic­u­larly if there is deeply un­pop­u­lar policy weigh­ing down the party’s can­did­ates.

Many sus­pect that the best — or even only — chance that Demo­crats have of sal­va­ging their ma­jor­ity is if they can pick off one or even two GOP-held seats. This would force Re­pub­lic­ans to gross sev­en or even eight seats to se­cure the six-seat net gain needed to win the ma­jor­ity. The Wash­ing­ton con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell will ul­ti­mately prove un­beat­able, but there are no data to sup­port that no­tion.

The polls have the Ken­tucky race dead even, and be­ing one of the most power­ful and vis­ible lead­ers in an in­sti­tu­tion with fa­vor­able rat­ings com­par­able to go­nor­rhea is no as­set in this day and age. Un­like Be­gich, Franken, Hagan, Landrieu, Pry­or, Shaheen, Ud­all, and Warner — or Reps. Bruce Bra­ley and Gary Peters, the likely Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ees in Iowa and Michigan — Mc­Con­nell’s chal­lenger, Ken­tucky Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, did not vote for Obama­care and is more as­so­ci­ated with the Clin­tons than Obama. That doesn’t mean she wins, but she will be less saddled with the ACA than her coun­ter­parts in oth­er states. I’d put Ken­tucky at 50-50. The oth­er vul­ner­able GOP seat is in Geor­gia, where Saxby Cham­b­liss is re­tir­ing. The state leans Re­pub­lic­an, but an exot­ic GOP nom­in­ee could make things very in­ter­est­ing, and Michelle Nunn, the CEO of Points of Light and the daugh­ter of former Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sam Nunn, is prov­ing to be one of the party’s strongest re­cruits this cycle, and she is run­ning without a pa­per trail of votes.

It’s far too soon to say that Demo­crats’ Sen­ate ma­jor­ity is his­tory. In 2012, their situ­ation looked pretty grim at this junc­ture, too, but the GOP self-de­struc­ted and nom­in­ated the wrong people in a couple of states, and ended up los­ing three seats.

Still, at this point, it sure looks to be a very ugly year for Demo­crats on Cap­it­ol Hill.

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