The Magazine

A Wave Election?

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JAY COST
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Labor Day marks the traditional start of the fall campaign season, and Republicans appear to be in a good position for the upcoming midterm elections. No serious political analyst believes that the House of Representatives is in danger of falling to the Democrats; more likely, Republicans will pick up a handful of seats. As for the upper chamber, Republicans are primed for gains, thanks to strong candidate recruitment, Democratic-held seats in Republican-voting states, and the persistent unpopularity of President Obama.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

But the question on just about everybody’s mind is, will an electoral “wave” wipe out Democrats and sweep Republicans to large gains? Of late, the answer has tended to be: maybe not. After all, Republicans have not yet opened up outsized leads in any of the must-win states. So the Democrats may be able hold the line.

It is certainly true that a wave that has not yet appeared might never come. Still, historically speaking, it is a bit early to see one party open up a decisive lead, at least on the Senate side of the ledger. Compare this cycle with the same point in 2010, a wave year in which Republicans gained six Senate seats. At this point in the cycle, Republicans had effectively sewn up three pick-ups—in Arkansas, Indiana, and North Dakota. Today, Republicans have similarly locked up three gains—in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. In 2010, the Republican position was still uncertain in three GOP-held seats—in Florida, Kentucky, and Ohio. Today, there are two uncertain holds—in Georgia and Kentucky. In 2010, there were eight Democratic-held seats where neither party had yet demonstrated a decisive edge—in California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, and West Virginia. Today, seven Democratic seats are truly uncertain—in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina.

So the two years are similar. Republicans had one more potential pickup opportunity in 2010, and one more potential vulnerability. But if we dig a little deeper, what we see is a notable improvement in quality from 2010 to 2014. 

First, candidate recruitment favors the Republicans this time around. Four years ago, in the Democratic-held seats that were in jeopardy as of Labor Day, the Democratic candidates turned out to have the decisive advantage over weak Republican challengers in Colorado, Nevada, and West Virginia; the GOP had a clear edge only in Illinois. This year, there is no such imbalance in candidate recruitment. With the exception of Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, who has been criticized for running a lackluster campaign, the Republicans probably landed the best recruits they could have gotten, while the Democrats are stuck with at least one gaffe-prone candidate, in Iowa.

Second, the playing field is much more favorable to Republicans this year than in 2010. Look first at the Republican seats in jeopardy this time: Georgia and Kentucky as compared with Florida, Kentucky, and Ohio in 2010. That year, two purple states were up for grabs, and the outcome was in the hands of voters who had backed Barack Obama in 2008. This time, Republicans are fighting to hold states that have gone for them in presidential elections since at least 2000, and Democratic challengers will have to appeal to Republican voters to win.

Moreover, look at the Democratic-held seats on the knife’s edge on Labor Day 2010. Just one of them was in a red state, West Virginia (and it turned out to be one of several the GOP lost that cycle because the Democratic nominee was substantially better than his Republican opponent); two were in purple states that both parties have won since 2000; and five, a majority, were in blue states, which the GOP has not won since at least 1988. This year, three Democratic-held seats are in red states that the GOP has consistently won since 2000; three are in purple states; and just one is in a blue state. That is much more favorable ground on which to challenge Democrats. 

The 2010 elections saw a fairly uniform pattern across the country. In states where Republicans or independents constituted a fair majority, the GOP tended to win unless its candidate was clearly the weaker. This explains why it lost where it did. California and Washington were just too Democratic in their partisan orientation; and relatively strong Democratic candidates defied the national trend in Colorado, Nevada, and West Virginia. But there were six Democratic-held seats where either the GOP clearly had the better candidate or evenly balanced candidates squared off in territory favorable to Republicans. The GOP won all six seats.

So in 2014, Republicans could well do better than six seats. In fact, they could easily take nine seats from the Democrats—in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. In each of these states, Republicans plus independents constitute a majority, and there is no clear Democratic candidate edge. A true repeat of the 2010 wave should therefore give the Republicans 54 seats—give or take—in the Senate.

The big question is whether a coalition of Republicans and independents will actually gel. The fact that it has not yet done so leaves open the possibility that it may never come together, but historically speaking there is no reason to expect it to have formed over the summer months. September will be highly informative: If we are in for a 2010-type wave, we should begin to see a break over the next few weeks.

Weighing in favor of a 2010 repeat is the relative weakness of President Obama. At this point in 2010, his job approval rating in the Real Clear Politics polling average was 46 percent; today, it is 42 percent. That decline in approval is matched by an increase in disapproval, from 47 percent to 52 percent. On the other hand, the Republican party’s reputation has seen a similar decline. Polls conducted over the spring and summer by CBS News, ABC News/Washington Post, and Gallup suggest a 1- or 2-point decline in the party’s favorable rating since 2010, and a 4-point hike in its unfavorable rating. On top of that, the consensus among nonpartisan pundits at this point is for something less than a pick-up of nine seats, in large measure because of persistent weakness in the GOP’s brand. 

While it is far too soon to say what will happen in November, we can already lay down a clear marker for evaluating the results. The Democrats’ position has unmistakably declined relative to this point in 2010. If Republicans cannot capitalize on that weakness, then they will have some serious soul-searching to do. If strong candidates like Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner cannot capture seats in purple states like Colorado and Iowa this year, how can the party hope to win the purple states in the presidential election of 2016? Moreover, if it cannot produce clear Republican majorities in states like Alaska and Louisiana, what will that say about the enthusiasm of conservative voters ahead of the showdown with Hillary Clinton?

The Republican party’s reputation has been dreadful for nearly a decade. No party can succeed for very long if three-fifths of the people dislike it. The GOP has been struggling for nearly a decade to hold together its historic alliance between business interests and grassroots conservatives, and to appeal to the swing voters who hold the balance of power. If it fails to win a strong victory this November, Republicans should take this as a sign that the health of the party is in critical condition. 

This year, Republicans should do not only well, but very well. If they don’t, it will be the surest sign yet that something is very wrong with the Grand Old Party.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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