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.