Regularly scheduled elections are a hallmark of the American political system. In 18th-century Britain, the monarch could call new elections on a whim, and our Founders saw in that arrangement a seed of tyranny. The Constitution they designed requires elections for Congress every two years, and the next such elections are less than a year away. This is good news for conservatives as they continue to oppose the Obama administration.
This president has been tremendously helped by having a Democratic-controlled Senate for his first five years in office. Harry Reid’s masterful, if not entirely virtuous, use of Senate rules has kept the president from having to veto bills containing popular Republican initiatives inimical to his liberal agenda. It has thus kept House Republicans from successfully framing the political debate during Obama’s tenure. Republican control of the Senate could finally force Obama to veto popular bills and thus sharpen debates over the economy, health care, and energy ahead of the 2016 presidential battle.
So the $16-trillion question is: With 35 Senate seats up for grabs next fall, can the Republicans win control of the upper chamber?
The Republicans enjoy good prospects in the Senate, although their victory is far from certain. Currently, the GOP controls 45 seats, with 51 required for the power to organize the chamber (since Vice President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, casts the deciding vote in a 50-50 tie). So the Republicans need to pick up 6 seats. Generally speaking, presidents see their political position decline by the time they’ve been in office for six years; since 1938, the opposition party has picked up an average of 7 Senate seats in sixth-year midterm elections. Yet this is no sure thing: Bill Clinton’s position was relatively strong going into his second-term midterms, and in 1998 the Democrats lost a net of zero Senate seats.
So what about 2014: What will determine the outcome? Obviously, the unique dynamics of individual races will sometimes be decisive; but on average, races tend to balance themselves out. More generally, such contests are structured by three broad factors: the relative exposure of the parties, the political standing of the president, and the pace of economic growth. Let’s take each in turn.
To get at partisan exposure, simply ask which party has the better playing field. Next year it is undoubtedly the Republicans. Democrats are defending seven Senate seats in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Of these, only North Carolina was close. Democrats also must defend six more seats in states where Republicans are competitive and often win: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Republicans, meanwhile, are defending only one seat where the broader electoral dynamics favor the Democrats—in Maine.
This sets the context for appreciating not only the scope of potential gains for the GOP, but also the role that President Obama will play. Right now, his job approval is languishing in the low 40s, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. If that number is unchanged a year from now, the president is likely to be even less popular in the states that Romney won and right around that average in the purple states that are up for grabs. This will be an enormous challenge for Democratic candidates to overcome. For better or worse, it is difficult these days for members of Congress to establish an electoral reputation independent of the occupant of the White House. Obamacare, moreover, links all the incumbent Democrats with the president: Every Democratic senator seeking reelection can be said to have cast the critical vote for it. If Obamacare remains unpopular next year, the president will be a political millstone, and it will be all the more difficult for Democrats to liberate themselves from him.
As for the economy, most experts forecast modest improvement next year, with economic growth remaining below the postwar trendline and unemployment still higher than before the financial crisis. There will probably be neither a recession to politically boost Republicans, nor an explosion of growth as in the late 1990s to help Democrats. Most likely, candidates favorably disposed to the president will trumpet steady growth, while his opponents will bemoan stagnation.
All in all, this suggests that Republicans are set to have a reasonably good year. The Democrats, even if they retain a majority, are extremely unlikely to walk away having lost zero net seats, as they did in 1998. The election is too far away for confident predictions, but a net pickup of six Senate seats by the Republicans appears doable.
What about the Senate contests as seen from the vantage point of particular states? Nominees have not yet been selected, which clouds the picture. Still, there are a few points to be made. First, Democratic incumbents are retiring in the heavily Republican states of Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. This is important, because contests for open seats tend to reflect the partisan dynamics of the state, and these states gave Mitt Romney between 55 percent and 62 percent of the vote, a clear advantage for Republicans.
Beyond that, the races in Arkansas and Louisiana, two heavily GOP states where Democratic incumbents are running for reelection, have already assumed their likely shape. In Arkansas, the GOP has struck gold with its all-but-official candidate: Freshman House member and decorated Iraq war veteran Tom Cotton is running unopposed for the nomination. Cotton is about as close to ideal as Republican candidates come. He’s young, smart, distinguished, and has appropriated the usually Democratic language of “the people versus the powerful” to tie Senator Mark Pryor to the backroom deals brokered by the Democrats to pass Obamacare. In Louisiana, GOP congressman Bill Cassidy has drawn a challenger from the right, but seems likely to beat him in Louisiana’s unique “jungle primary” (all parties compete, and the top two finishers face off in the general election) and win the right to face incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu in the fall.
In the remaining states, little can be said until the results of GOP primary battles are known. These primaries could be the most important factor in determining who takes control of the Senate in January 2015. Over the last two election cycles, the GOP has needlessly lost Senate elections in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota because its candidates were grossly inferior to those the Democrats nominated. In other words, over the last two cycles, the Republicans should have won control of the Senate, but failed because their candidates were terrible.
That problem could dog them again. For instance, Republicans have two decent would-be candidates in Alaska—Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and former attorney general Dan Sullivan—but Joe Miller is also running for the nomination. Miller upset Republican senator Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary, but ran such an inept general election campaign that the incumbent was able to win reelection as a write-in candidate. Similarly, Ken Buck, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Colorado in 2010, opened himself up to attacks in the culture war and lost to Democrat Michael Bennet. Buck is running again.
If Republicans nominate candidates like Miller and Buck, they may once more snatch defeat from the jaws
of victory. In general, they need to recruit solid conservatives who are also appealing to voters. If Obama remains -unpopular next year, and the public is still dissatisfied with Obamacare, candidates who focus on those issues with pinpoint accuracy should win. But contenders who cannot successfully defend themselves on culture war issues or whose personal integrity is questionable will give Democrats an opening.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House of Representatives looks reasonably secure for the Republicans, for the same reasons that a takeover of the Senate is possible. Modest economic growth and a weak president should shield Republicans from Democratic assaults and discourage top-notch Democratic prospects from challenging GOP incumbents.
Moreover, the electoral landscape of the House favors the GOP. Mitt Romney actually carried a majority of House districts in 2012, even as he lost the nationwide popular vote by roughly 4 points. Democrats these days are wont to blame their plight on perfidious GOP gerrymandering, ignoring the 80 years after the Great Depression in which Democrats had the upper hand in drawing House districts.
In fact, the Republicans’ strong position in the House is a surprising consequence of Obama’s electoral coalition. No victorious presidential candidate has depended so heavily on the support of urbanites and nonwhite voters. These are “bad” voters for the House of Representatives: that is, it is very difficult to parcel out urban voters, clustered within cities, across many districts. By contrast, suburban and rural voters, who more often vote Republican, are more spread out and can be distributed across districts so as to maximize a party’s vote. Thus, Democrats regularly win with 80 percent or more of the vote in urban districts, while Republicans win with 65 percent in rural and suburban districts. This means that a larger share of the Democratic vote is “wasted.”
This effect is multiplied by the influence of the nonwhite vote. In 1982 liberal Democrats sponsored amendments to the Voting Rights Act that require state governments to create minority-majority districts whenever possible. This makes it all the more difficult to disperse the Democratic vote. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina all have large African-American populations, and the states are legally required to cluster them, producing heavily Democratic districts, rather than spreading them out across swing districts. Ditto Texas, where the Hispanic population is usually concentrated in a handful of south Texas districts, rather than distributed in such a way as to make more seats winnable for Democrats.
Just under a year out from the 2014 midterms, it is difficult to be more specific than this. We will have to wait to see how Obamacare plays out, how the economy performs, and what sort of candidates the parties select to get a firmer sense of the Republican party’s prospects. Still, at this point, it is possible to say that the Republicans hold a fair chance of taking control of the Senate and are favored to retain control of the House.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.