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 »
Even though they dislike both of them, the American people want to know that its presidential candidates are healthy. "Nearly two-thirds of registered voters think presidential candidates should release details about their medical histories, according to a new Morning Consult poll." In the new poll, 64 percent of Americans say the candidates should release their medical reports, up nine percent from May.
In a speech Friday at the Federal Reserve's Jackson Hole summit, Fed chair Janet Yellen sounded an optimistic tone about the state of the American economy, before implying that a hike in interest rates is on the horizon. The Fed "continues to anticipate that gradual increases in the federal funds rate will be appropriate over time to achieve and sustain employment and inflation near our statutory objectives," Yellen said in her address.
While politicians argue over whether or not to be worried about potential voter fraud come November, a study tells us it is not a legitimate concern. "A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls."
The Democratic National Committee's "influx of money" in July "owes in part to an unprecedented workaround of political spending limits that lets the party tap into millions of dollars more" from Hillary Clinton’s biggest donors. "At least $7.3 million of the DNC’s July total originated with payments from hundreds of major donors who had already contributed the maximum $33,400 to the national committee." Those payments were "first bundled by the Hillary Victory Fund and then transferred to the state Democratic parties, which effectively stripped the donors’ names and sent the money to the DNC as a lump sum."
President Obama this morning "created the largest protected area on the planet Friday, by expanding a national marine monument off the coast of his native Hawaii to encompass 582,578 square miles of land and sea."