"Republicans could lose their House majority because of the shutdown,” blared the headline of a story published at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog by Princeton professor Sam Wang on October 8, 2013, midpoint of the 16-day shutdown. Two weeks after Wang pointed to surveys showing control of the House could slip away from Republicans, three different reputable polls showed the situation even more dire for the GOP: Democrats led Republicans by 8 percentage points on the “generic ballot” question—the same margin by which House Democrats had led when they’d delivered their 2006 “thumping” to Republicans.
What a difference a year makes. “If Democrats were able to hold their losses under five seats in the House, that’s a great night for them,” Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told me in an interview two weeks before the upcoming midterm elections. “If Democrats lose between 5 and 10 seats, that’s about what we would expect. If Republicans gain 10 seats or more, wow, that would be a great night for them.”
House Republicans mostly have Obamacare to thank for the reversal of partisan fortunes. Days after the government shutdown ended, millions of Americans learned that they were losing health care plans they liked—contrary to the president’s emphatic promises that they would be able to keep them. By November 2013, the Democrats’ approval had tanked, and it never recovered.
Republicans now hold a 4-point lead on the generic ballot question and have gone on the offensive in the Northeast. There are at least six races to watch in New York alone on election night. When polls close on the East Coast on November 4, these races may signal whether a national GOP wave or merely a good year is unfolding for Republicans.
- Republicans have their best shot of picking up a seat in upstate New York’s 21st District, where polls show Elise Stefanik, a former aide on the Romney campaign and in the Bush White House, leading Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker and grocery store owner from Brooklyn. Stefanik’s likely win will come as vindication for conservatives, who were told only a moderate or liberal Republican could carry the district.
During a 2009 special election in the 21st, the local and national Republican establishment backed liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava, who supported Obama’s stimulus package, taxpayer-funded abortion, and card check (which eliminates the secret ballot in union elections). She wouldn’t even say if she would vote against Obamacare. But conservatives were told that Republicans would have to move left if they wanted to win in upstate New York in the Obama era. For the first time in an election, the Tea Party rebelled and backed Conservative party nominee Doug Hoffman, who lost narrowly after Scozzafava dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democrat. Moderate pro-choice Republican Matt Doheny lost the district in 2010 and was defeated again in 2012.
In 2014, incumbent Democrat Bill Owens retired after Stefanik jumped into the race and the Obamacare implementation debacle occurred. Stefanik, a 30-year-old fiscally conservative, hawkish, and pro-life Republican, has united the GOP. If elected, she will be the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
- Republicans also have high hopes for another young New York Republican, 34-year-old Lee Zeldin, who is running for Congress in New York’s 1st District, on the eastern half of Long Island. Zeldin, an Iraq war veteran and state senator, trailed incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop by 10 points (51 percent to 41 percent) in the Siena College poll released in early September, the only public poll released so far.
But Republicans say the race has tightened in internal polling. “Every poll I’ve seen shows this race tied,” says one GOP operative. “I don’t mean margin-of-error tied—I mean 42-42, 46-46. This is going to be one of the closest races in the country.” Republicans have certainly put their money where their mouth is: The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent nearly $2 million on the race. The Cook Political Report’s Wasserman gives “a slight advantage in that race to Bishop, but there’s no doubt it’s competitive.” If Zeldin wins, he will be the only Jewish Republican in Congress.