Last month, the headlines coming out of Washington blared that the Republican Party was at war with itself as party leaders and Tea Partiers fought about the federal budget, debt and who would run as a Republican in 2014. Now headlines are declaring doomsday for Democrats, predicting they’ll lose their Senate majority in next fall’s election.
These swings of the pundit pendulum are not just annoying and ill-informed, as at least one more seasoned Washington political observor wrote last week. They also eclipse a critical reality: that there are as many scenarios why Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will keep his top job as there are paths to a possible GOP rebound.
“I am reading and watching a lot of the same crap as everyone else about the November 2014 elections,” longtime pollster John Zogby wrote. “Trust me. You cannot make predictions in March. I know, I have tried to do it.”
“There are clearly Democrats running for the Senate who are not polling well,” he said. “But many are most fortunate to be running against Republicans who are also in trouble. Listen to me: there is a revulsion against BOTH parties. Just because the Democrats are not polling well does not translate in Republicans polling better.”
Let’s look at the Senate landscape and five trends that are not making it into many of the recent political crystal balls.
Trend 1: State Dynamics Matter, Not National Numbers
The reason Washington pundits are saying that 2014 could be big for Republicans starts with a baseline. Democrats have to defend 21 Senate seats in 2014, while Republicans only have to defend 14 seats. Thus, in midterm elections, when the president’s party is past its honeymoon with voters and tens of millions of presidential election year voters stay home, Democrats are disadvantaged, the conventional wisdom begins. Pundits point to statistics, such as the fact that Mitt Romney beat President Obama in 2012 in eight of the 21 states where Democratic senators face 2014 races, as signs of trouble . That’s one way that the endangered Democrats list arises, pointing to Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.
“This is a map that’s theoretically very favorable to Republicans,” wrote Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who went on to make a crucial point that has been missed by political fortune tellers, including FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver: Democratic senators have been winning in these states, despite those populations electing Republicans for other offices. “Democrats control the Senate in part because they have shown a better aptitude in recent years for winning Senate races in states that do not support their party’s presidential candidate,” Kondik said.
In other words, many Democratic senators know how to win in their red-leaning states where Obama—and Bill Clinton before him—were not liked. “While Republicans hold eight Senate seats in states where the Democratic presidential candidate won a greater share of the two-party vote than the Republican did over the past four presidential elections, Democrats hold 15 such crossover seats,” Kondik said. “That seven-seat difference more than accounts for the Democrats 55-45 edge in the Senate.”
Trend 2: Senate Democrats Have A Positive Record To Run On
Before we get into the reasons why the 2014 election will be fought more over local issues than national themes, step back and consider this basic political fact: Senate Democrats can point to constructive legislation they’ve passed—even if it was blocked by the House, whereas Republicans can mostly boast of trying to impede real progress. Senate Democrats have passed comprehensive immigration reform, updated employment discrimination laws and toughened the military’s sexual harrassment rules. Next week, the Senate will vote on an unemployment insurance extension, with Democrats providing the majority for passage.
In contrast, most Republican senators routinely have voted against these bills. Like many GOP candidates, they want to roll back laws ensuring clean air and water, preventing insurance companies from discriminating—Obamacare, etc. In addition, most of the Koch brothers funded political advertising is entirely negative, emphasizing nothing constructive. If average Americans check their gut on who in govermment is trying to make their lives easier, the record favors Democrats.
Trend 3: Attacking Obamacare Isn’t A Sure Bet
Despite the Koch's brothers wishes, the federal government isn't about to disappear. Moreover, the domestic agenda contains more than one item—overturning Obamacare. But there’s little indication that many campaigns are going to offer a broader message, even though Republican strategists not aligned with the Kochs are saying that bashing Obamacare isn't going to be enough to win.
Earlier this month, Republicans were giddy when Republican David Jolly won a special election in Florida's 13th congressional district in part by railing against Obamacare. A day after beating Democrat Alex Sink (48.4 to 46.6 percent), Karl Rove wrote a Wall Street Journal column warning Republicans not to count on bashing Obamacare next fall. “Ms. Sink’s record mattered,” he said. “GOP ads pointed out that as president of NationsBank (now Bank of America) in Florida, she collected $8 million in salary and bonuses while thousands of bank jobs were cut.” Republicans also attacked Sink for bad investments as Florida’s chief financial officer during the Great Recession.
Rove’s remarks are curious, because they underscore how populist issues that have long been associated with Democrats worked in that race. Attacking a jobs-cutting bank executive doesn’t sound very Republican. But, as the Center for Politics detailed analysis of 2014’s Senate races noted, local angles are what is driving—and what will drive—2014’s Senate races. The Center suggests that only three Democratic Senate seats are truly imperiled and likely to fall into Republican hands: Louisiana, South Dakota and West Virginia. That's a much shorter list than the endangered state list from former New York Times pollster, Nate Silver.
The next four worrisome seats for Democrats are in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa and North Carolina, they said. But those races also have local issues that do not immediately favor Republicans. Alaska Democrat Mark Begich has brought home a lot of federal funds, for example, they said, in the tradition of past Alaskan senators who served for decades. Meanwhile, two Republican Senate seats, in Georgia and Kentucky, might go from Republicans to Democrats, they predicted.
Trend 4: Don’t Forget The Pro-Obamacare Voters
On March 31, Obamacare enrollment will close until next fall. That’s why the President has been appearing on all kinds of broadcasts recently—such as "Ellen" last Thursday—to remind key uninsured constituencies, such as young people and women, to get a health plan. No one analyzing the 2014 Senate races has noted that Obamacare beneficiaries might become a voting block in battleground states in what historically are low-turnout federal elections.
North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a tough re-election, has a lot of new Obamacare beneficiaries. As of February 1, 48,451 poor people obtained coverage under state-run Medicaid, and 160,161 individuals picked a private health plan—many will receive premium subsidies. If one-quarter to one-half of these people vote in next November’s Senate race, a turnout that would be consistent with typical voter registration drives run by progressives, that voting block could become a decisive factor—especially if Tea Party candidate Greg Bannon is the GOP Senate nominee.
Bannon has called Obamacare a “global conspiracy,” said food stamps “enslave people,” and was caught plagiarizing Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s website. Bannon’s top competitor, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, helped roll back many progressive policies in the past year, leading to the state’s moral Monday protests. The fact that local Democratic organizing is ongoing suggests that Hagan’s re-election prospects may not be as endangered as many Washington pundits perceive.
To date, more than 5 million people have gained coverage through the law nationally. How these recipients vote in key Senate elections will be a trend to watch.
Trend 5: Republican Attacks Can Backfire
One of the biggest challenges facing both parties is getting voters to pay attention and turn out when there isn’t a presidential candidate on the ballot. That’s why upwards of 40 million fewer people voted in 2010 compared to 2008, when Obama was first elected. But dormant voters wake up when they are attacked, and the GOP has a record of over-reaching and provoking people to vote for Democrats. Their popularity plummeted after last fall's federal government shutdown. Anither example is with voting rights, and state-level Republicans embrace of Jim Crow-style rules designed to thwart voting by students, people of color and women.
But it’s not just voting rights. The House has refused to pass immigration reform, refused to raise the minimum wage, wants to keep poor people hungry by cutting food stamps. These and other stands don’t go unnoticed. This week, GOPUSA.com ridiculed fast food workers who were protesting stolen wages, saying, “Are you kidding me? No one is robbing from these people. They have a JOB! And it is an entry-level job. These jobs are not meant to be careers… McDonald’s and other restaurants should not give in!”
In Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, 39 activists were arrested at the Statehouse last week after protesting the GOP-led state’s failure to open its Medicaid program under Obamacare. “We have people dying every day just because they don’t have access to healthcare,” Shanya Adelman told reporters, before her arrest. A Republican state senator called the protesters “fecal matter,” a sign that these protesters are striking a nerve in an election year.
The Republican agenda may boomerang and bring out Democratic voters, because nobody want to be told their concerns and voices don’t count. And unlike 2010, when the White House was not focused on congressional elections, so far this year President Obama has been reaching out to the Democratic constituencies who sat out 2010: younger people, communities of color and women. The Wghite House seems intent on not repeating its hand-off strategy four years ago.
The Election Is Eight Months Away
These five points are not part of the current political handicapping equation in Washington. But that doesn’t mean that they are not valid factors in 2014’s election year dynamic. As John Zogby noted this week in a piece bemoaning the latest wave of Washington political predictions, “elections occur in November not March.”
“As I have written before, if the turnout is like 2010, those Democrats will go down. If the turnout is somewhere between 2010 and 2012, then Democrats can hold on,” he said. “Both parties have the same problem energizing their own base. Hence, the Democrats have to scare the hell out of young and minority voters by telling them their future is in jeapardy and the Republicans have to convince their minions that they really can win.”
In other words, it's a long time before November and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not destined to lose his job.
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