Republicans Could Be Weakening Their Party’s Future

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: U.S. Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) returns to his office after he spoke in the Senate Chamber October 7, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the partial shutdown goes into its seventh day. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Oct. 7, 2013, 5:45 p.m.

There is no ques­tion that the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s brand is ex­per­i­en­cing griev­ous dam­age. In fact, you would be quite be­liev­able if you were to sug­gest that the GOP has been mak­ing an act­ive, mas­ochist­ic ef­fort to isol­ate it­self from mod­er­ate, in­de­pend­ent, and swing voters, fur­ther ex­acer­bat­ing all the prob­lems with tar­get con­stitu­en­cies that cost Mitt Rom­ney the pres­id­ency and the GOP a na­tion­al pop­u­lar House vote vic­tory.

Of course, there have been wave elec­tions in the past, where large num­bers of seats swung from one party to the oth­er. Demo­crats be­nefited from such elec­tions in 1958, 1964, 1974, 1982, 2006, and 2008, just as Re­pub­lic­ans came out the big win­ners in 1966, 1980, 1994, and 2010. But his­tory doesn’t ar­gue for a re­peat this time. Sev­en of these 10 wave elec­tions were midterms, as 2014 will be. In every one of the sev­en, the party in the White House, not the op­pos­i­tion party, suffered.

There is reas­on to look at 2014 as unique. Demo­crats picked up net gains of 31 seats in 2006 and 21 seats in 2008. Between these two elec­tions, they man­aged to pluck all but a few hardy Re­pub­lic­ans from com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts. In 2010, Re­pub­lic­ans re­turned the fa­vor, with a net gain of 63 seats. In those three elec­tions, each side pretty much re­moved the low-hanging fruit, leav­ing very few Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans in po­ten­tially mar­gin­al dis­tricts; neither party is in a po­s­i­tion to eas­ily gain many seats.

At The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, we have al­ways said, giv­en their struc­tur­al ad­vant­ages, House Re­pub­lic­ans would pretty much need to self-de­struct to lose con­trol of the cham­ber. Today, they seem to be flirt­ing with just that pos­sib­il­ity, but the elec­tion is still more than a year away, and it is far too early to say that the House ma­jor­ity is at risk. Min­im­al net party change is still the most likely out­come, but we no longer fore­cast a GOP gain of two to sev­en seats; that swing could now just as plaus­ibly go in Demo­crats’ dir­ec­tion.

If you take a look at any of the three ma­jor in­de­pend­ent polit­ic­al ana­lysts who look at in­di­vidu­al races — Stu­art Rothen­berg’s Rothen­berg Polit­ic­al Re­port, Larry Sabato’s Crys­tal Ball, pro­duced by the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia Cen­ter for Polit­ics, and The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port — you will find ana­lyses ex­plain­ing why it’s pos­sible, but very un­likely, that the House will flip. Giv­en cur­rent dis­trict lines, and the geo­graph­ic­al “sort­ing out” that has taken place over the past three elec­tion cycles (Demo­crats tend to live in highly con­cen­trated urb­an areas, “wast­ing” a lot of votes; Re­pub­lic­an voters tend to be more broadly geo­graph­ic­ally dis­trib­uted and thus more ef­fi­ciently al­loc­ated), no one is very con­fid­ent that a turnover will oc­cur, al­though it could.

In the Sen­ate, while the cur­rent stan­doff isn’t likely to help the GOP score a net gain of six Sen­ate seats and win a ma­jor­ity in 2014, the six seats that will most prob­ably de­term­ine wheth­er the GOP suc­ceeds are all in states Rom­ney car­ried. Whatever the back­lash in those states over the cur­rent shut­down and loom­ing fisc­al battles, it is more likely to be more muted than else­where in the coun­try. Rom­ney won big in the three states with the most-vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic open Sen­ate seats: West Vir­gin­ia by 27 points, South Dakota by 18 points, and Montana by 14 points. Like­wise, the seats held by the four most vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors all went to Rom­ney: Mark Pry­or’s Arkan­sas by 24 points, Mary Landrieu’s Louisi­ana by 17 points, and Mark Be­gich’s Alaska by 14 points. Only in Kay Hagan’s state of North Car­o­lina — Rom­ney pre­vailed by 2 points in 2012 and Pres­id­ent Obama nar­rowly won in 2008 — could a plaus­ible ar­gu­ment be made that a back­lash against the GOP could make a real dif­fer­ence. At least in West Vir­gin­ia, South Dakota, and Montana, the out­come is not likely to be de­term­ined by any par­tic­u­lar pro-Demo­crat­ic or anti-Re­pub­lic­an tide.

The two Re­pub­lic­an-held seats in real danger at this point are Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s in Ken­tucky and the open seat in Geor­gia. In Ken­tucky, where Rom­ney won by 23 points, Mc­Con­nell is more en­dangered by voters fed up with all of Wash­ing­ton than by any anti-GOP sen­ti­ment. The open seat in Geor­gia, where Rom­ney won by only 8 points, could be where na­tion­al factors have the po­ten­tial to kick in; however, it seems that the most im­port­ant factor for Re­pub­lic­ans’ chances in the gen­er­al elec­tion there is wheth­er they choose a Ted Cruz-lite nom­in­ee.

With the elec­tion over a year away, most cam­paign poll­sters are hold­ing off un­til the dust settles. In a dis­cus­sion among a group of poll­sters Monday morn­ing, all took a “wait-and-see” ap­proach. One prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster put it in an emailed re­sponse: “I don’t think we’re go­ing to lose any Re­pub­lic­ans on [the shut­down]. I don’t think the Demo­crats will lose any Demo­crats on it. I think in­de­pend­ents dis­like Obama­care but don’t want to use de­fund­ing, let alone a shut­down. So it hurts in the cen­ter. In the cen­ter, the primary re­ac­tion will be: a pox on all their houses; the sec­ond­ary [re­ac­tion] will be R’s more to blame than D’s. But I think that is a dis­tant second.”

The dam­age to the Re­pub­lic­an Party ap­pears to be more struc­tur­al than im­me­di­ate. The GOP is ad­mit­tedly weak­er but seems un­likely to crumble im­me­di­ately. Re­pub­lic­ans should worry about what is hap­pen­ing to their brand: what im­pres­sions they are build­ing among new voters, what mod­er­ate and in­de­pend­ent voters are tak­ing away from this fight, and the long-term ef­fects of these im­pres­sions in 2016 and 2020 — and on the over­all health of the party.

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