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
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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.

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