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.