The Odds of a GOP Wave Are Increasing

This year’s political environment is shaping up to be nearly as bleak as 2010, and that’s ominous news for Senate Democrats.

Joni Ernst was struggling to get traction in the Iowa Senate primary.  Then she ran an ad about hog castration.
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Josh Kraushaar
July 22, 2014, 5:43 p.m.

When writ­ing about polit­ics, it’s all too fre­quent to use ter­min­o­logy that of­ten ob­scures more than elu­cid­ates. That’s es­pe­cially true when it comes to the word “wave” — short­hand for a land­slide vic­tory for the win­ning party. I’ve ar­gued be­fore that the like­li­hood of 2014 be­ing a wave elec­tion has been rising, giv­en the pres­id­ent’s con­sist­ently low ap­prov­al rat­ings and the fact that Re­pub­lic­ans are run­ning evenly on the gen­er­ic bal­lot (which usu­ally trans­lates in­to a clear GOP edge) and that the right-track/wrong-track num­bers are near his­tor­ic lows. All these big-pic­ture signs are omin­ous for the party in power.

But this week, The New York Times‘ Nate Cohn ar­gued that the threat of a Re­pub­lic­an wave is sub­sid­ing, thanks to red-state Sen­ate Demo­crats re­main­ing re­si­li­ent and the de­clin­ing risk of blue-state seats — such as those in Ore­gon and Vir­gin­ia — flip­ping in a land­slide. This, des­pite the vari­ous polit­ic­al fore­casters and Sen­ate mod­els (in­clud­ing the NYT‘s own Up­shot) show­ing the like­li­hood of a Re­pub­lic­an takeover in­creas­ing over time, with more states emer­ging in play.

What gives?

To be fair, a lot of the dis­agree­ment stems from se­mantics — the defin­i­tion of the word “wave.” Cohn ar­gues that if Re­pub­lic­ans merely sweep red-state Demo­crat­ic seats and per­haps pick off a stray swing seat, it’s not a wave elec­tion — even if Re­pub­lic­ans net sev­en seats on their way to the ma­jor­ity. To ac­com­plish that feat, Re­pub­lic­ans would need to oust four sit­ting Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors. Over the last dec­ade, Re­pub­lic­ans have de­feated only three sit­ting sen­at­ors (Tom Daschle in South Dakota, Russ Fein­gold in Wis­con­sin, and Blanche Lin­coln in Arkan­sas). Surely, a red-state sweep would sig­ni­fy the con­clu­sion of a polit­ic­al shake-up in the South, where voters are so dis­gus­ted with the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic Party that they’re will­ing to throw out sen­at­ors who had pre­vi­ously re­lied on split-tick­et voters to win. If a Re­pub­lic­an takeover by pick­ing up sev­en Sen­ate seats isn’t a wave, it’s aw­fully close.

There’s also a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al con­flict at hand. Most polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists define a wave in terms of House seats gained, be­cause Sen­ate con­tests only take place in one-third of the coun­try. But in the House, ger­ry­man­der­ing and voter self-sort­ing have lim­ited the uni­verse of com­pet­it­ive seats. With a 234-seat ma­jor­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans have already come close to hit­ting the up­per lim­it of their rep­res­ent­a­tion. Emory Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Alan Ab­ramow­itz found that even a siz­able 5-point gen­er­ic-bal­lot ad­vant­age for Re­pub­lic­ans would net them only 15 House seats. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, as­sess­ing a “2010-lite” en­vir­on­ment for Re­pub­lic­ans earli­er this year, ex­pects GOP gains of just two to 12 House seats. It’s very pos­sible Re­pub­lic­ans could ex­ceed ex­pect­a­tions in the Sen­ate while adding only mar­gin­ally to their House ma­jor­ity.

Still, there’s plenty of race-by-race evid­ence to sug­gest that most con­tests are trend­ing in a Re­pub­lic­an dir­ec­tion. Over the past sev­er­al months, the Iowa and Col­or­ado Sen­ate races have turned from long shots to prom­ising Re­pub­lic­an pickup op­por­tun­it­ies. In Iowa, Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Joni Ernst is run­ning evenly with Demo­crat­ic Rep. Bruce Bra­ley in the Real Clear Polit­ics polling av­er­age, a marked shift over the last two months. And in Col­or­ado, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all only holds a 1-point av­er­age lead over GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner, ac­cord­ing to RCP, in a race that’s shap­ing up to be a barn burn­er.

And there isn’t much evid­ence that red-state Demo­crats have gained ground in re­cent months, either. In Arkan­sas, re­li­able pub­lic polling has been sparse, but GOP Rep. Tom Cot­ton has led Sen. Mark Pry­or (D) in three straight pub­lic polls, along with the GOP cam­paign’s last two in­tern­als. Pry­or didn’t re­lease any polling of his own to counter. An April NYT/Up­shot sur­vey show­ing a double-di­git Pry­or lead, which shaped pub­lic per­cep­tion of the race, is now look­ing more like an out­lier.

In Louisi­ana, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) has nev­er hit 50 per­cent in any of the all-party primary sur­veys, with most polls show­ing her well short of the mark. Out­side GOP groups are already an­ti­cip­at­ing a run­off, re­serving post-Novem­ber elec­tion ad time on be­half of Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, her ex­pec­ted chal­lenger. With Re­pub­lic­ans on track to nom­in­ate a cred­ible can­did­ate in Geor­gia, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell avoid­ing a tough primary in Ken­tucky, and Sen. Thad Co­chran re­nom­in­ated in Mis­sis­sippi, it’s look­ing less likely that Demo­crats can pick off a stray Re­pub­lic­an-held seat.

To be sure, there are sev­er­al races where Demo­crats have sta­bil­ized their stand­ing. Sen. Kay Hagan has inched ahead of Re­pub­lic­an Thom Tillis in North Car­o­lina, thanks largely to the state House speak­er’s role in a con­ten­tious budget fight in the state Le­gis­lature. Her num­bers are still weak and she re­mains one of the most vul­ner­able Demo­crats, but her strategy of mak­ing Tillis an un­ac­cept­able al­tern­at­ive is very vi­able. Michigan Sec­ret­ary of State Terri Lynn Land is look­ing like a weak can­did­ate, un­able to cap­it­al­ize on the fa­vor­able en­vir­on­ment for the GOP in Michigan. And former Sen. Scott Brown hasn’t den­ted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s com­fort­able lead in New Hamp­shire, thanks to his mid­dling fa­vor­able rat­ings and struggles to an­swer straight­for­ward policy ques­tions.

But even wave elec­tions fea­ture weak can­did­ates and missed op­por­tun­it­ies: 2010 was a his­tor­ic year for Re­pub­lic­ans, yet Shar­ron Angle and Ken Buck proved they wer­en’t ready for prime time in oth­er­wise win­nable races. The wave wiped out Demo­crats in the South and Mid­w­est that year, but it cres­ted in the West. Sens. Patty Mur­ray, Mi­chael Ben­net, and Bar­bara Box­er, top tar­gets that year, all won reelec­tion. That didn’t change the real­ity of rough pub­lic opin­ion for Demo­crats.

If any­thing, this year’s en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats is shap­ing up to be as bleak. Siz­able ma­jor­it­ies op­pose the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of nearly every is­sue, in­clud­ing the eco­nomy, health care, and for­eign policy. The ad­min­is­tra­tion looks out of its ele­ment, lurch­ing from for­eign policy crises to do­mest­ic scan­dal over the past year. Even out of the head­lines, Obama­care is still a driv­ing force for Re­pub­lic­ans and for un­fa­vor­able poll num­bers. This week, Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg re­leased new data show­ing Obama’s dis­ap­prov­al at a whop­ping 60 per­cent in 12 Sen­ate battle­grounds, with half strongly dis­ap­prov­ing of his per­form­ance. Over­all, Re­pub­lic­ans held a 2-point edge on the battle­ground gen­er­ic bal­lot, 46 per­cent to 44 per­cent. 

Those are the num­bers that fore­shad­ow wave elec­tions. In the House, the out­look is already de­cidedly fa­vor­able to­ward Re­pub­lic­ans, even with a lim­ited pool of com­pet­it­ive seats. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port only ranks four GOP-held seats as toss-ups or worse, while 13 Demo­crat­ic seats are in the same cat­egory. Per­en­ni­al tar­gets, like sub­urb­an Reps. Joe Heck and Mike Fitzpatrick, are look­ing in strong shape, while Demo­crats in friendly seats like Reps. Brad Schneider and Scott Peters are fa­cing chal­len­ging cam­paigns. In Sen­ate races, where voters pay closer at­ten­tion to in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates, Demo­crats are work­ing ag­gress­ively to dis­qual­i­fy chal­lengers from cap­it­al­iz­ing on the pub­lic dis­con­tent, hop­ing that wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the GOP brand will trans­late in­to sup­port for their in­cum­bents.

But in an en­vir­on­ment like this, it’s more likely we’ll see more races come in­to play late than to see close con­tests fall by the way­side. Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t guar­an­teed a wave elec­tion at this point, but those dis­miss­ing the pos­sib­il­ity are whist­ling past the grave­yard.


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