With about three weeks to go until the midterm elections, where does the battle for Congress stand?
Last year House Democrats had high hopes of retaking the lower chamber in 2014, and political junkies were inundated with stories about their prowess at fundraising and mobilizing. Those hopes have mostly been dashed. The brutal national environment has forced Democrats onto the defensive. Just last week, the party quietly cut ad time in many Republican-held districts it had been targeting. Still, there is little room for the GOP to grow; its natural ceiling in the House is probably 250 seats, and it already controls 234. In its last update, the Cook Political Report listed 26 Democratic-held seats as being in some jeopardy, but just 11 Republican seats. How these races will break remains to be seen, but Republican gains in the range of 7 to 15 seats seem probable.
The more the merrier: The GOP already has a strong majority in the House, so gains would amount to an insurance policy in case the Democrats surge in 2016. Typically, when a party retains the White House, it enjoys little in the way of coattails; apart from the unusual election of 1964 in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, you have to go back all the way to 1948 to find an incumbent president’s party retaining the White House and picking up a decisive number of House seats. A president-elect Hillary Clinton, then, would be unlikely to sweep, say, 25-30 Democrats into the House, and even that would give Democrats only a nominal majority; an actual governing majority would require upwards of 40 pickups in 2016. So if Republicans do well in the House next month, that will go a long way toward preventing a liberal governing majority until at least 2019.
As for the Senate, the GOP’s prospects include the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the last month the Republican position has unequivocally improved in three must-win races with Democratic incumbents. In Alaska, Republican Dan Sullivan has broken open a lead against Democrat Mark Begich. Recent polls show the Democrat down by about 5 points and stuck at an anemic 42 percent of the vote. Alaska is a tricky state to poll, so you never know until the votes are counted, but the GOP should feel good about its position on the Last Frontier.
In Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton retains an apparently durable lead over Democrat Mark Pryor. The Democratic narrative of the spring and summer—Pryor was great on the stump, while Cotton was wooden—has mostly fallen apart. Just last week, Pryor was asked a simple question about how the government was handling Ebola and gave an answer to rival Ted Kennedy’s meandering nonresponse to Roger Mudd about why he wanted to be president. Cotton, meanwhile, responded to Bill Clinton’s campaigning on behalf of Pryor with this winning rebuke: “I’m not worried about Bill Clinton’s support for Mark Pryor. I’m worried about Pryor’s support for Barack Obama.” Conservatives should feel excited at the prospect of a Senator Cotton. Combine him with Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a shoo-in for victory, and the intellectual wattage of the Senate GOP increases substantially.
In Louisiana, Republican Bill Cassidy has mostly held a lead over Democrat Mary Landrieu this year. That lead appears to have widened, and the polls show Cassidy nearing the critical 50 percent mark. That is especially important because Louisiana’s election occurs in two stages: a jungle primary, in which candidates from all parties battle one another, and a runoff between the top vote-getters. This race is widely expected to go to a runoff, in which Cassidy would be the favorite.
More good news in Iowa. Republican Joni Ernst charged out of no-where early this year to capture the attention of the party establishment and grassroots activists. She cruised to victory in the primary and has taken what appears to be a clear lead over Democrat Bruce Braley. This is the reverse of what Beltway wags expected a year ago. It seemed then that the Democrats had scored a coup in recruiting Braley, a House member, while the GOP field was unimpressive. Now it is Ernst who is the star and Braley the gaffe-prone dud. Given the president’s unpopularity and the staunch independ-ence of Iowa, the GOP can be hopeful about this race. Still, with 15 percent of voters undecided in the average of the latest polls, the seat can’t be taken