Things are looking up for Republicans. President Obama’s agenda is collapsing before our eyes. Obama is pointing to the 2014 midterm elections to capture the House and revive his presidency. “My job is not simply to occupy the Oval Office,” he said at a San Francisco fundraiser. “My job is to make sure we move the country forward, and I think we can best do that if Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House once again.” Obama said Pelosi is “thought ful” and “visionary” and “never lets ideology cloud her judgment.”
In 2014, Obama will be playing on Republican turf. The prospects of putting Pelosi back in charge are slim. Democrats would need to net 17 House seats. But the outlook at the moment is that Republicans could gain as many as 5 or 6 seats. Or more if the six-year itch takes hold, punishing Obama midway through his second term. The average sixth-year pickup by the “out” party since 1934 is 28 seats.
Republicans have a better chance of winning the Senate than Democrats have of taking back the House. But skepticism that Republicans can pull this off is warranted, since they blew easy chances to grab the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Yet the opportunity is there in 2014. A net of six seats is required, and seven Democrats in red states are either retiring or seeking reelection.
There’s a wild card in 2014—Obama. Presidents normally don’t inject themselves in sixth-year midterms as aggressively as Obama is promising to do. Few Democrats will want him to campaign personally for them. That’s not where he can help. But on fundraising, turnout, and shaping the issues in 2014, he might.
Obama has told the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he’ll do eight fundraisers for them in 2013 and no telling how many next year. And Organizing for America—his reelection campaign now functioning as the president’s personal PAC—will try to create voter turnout next year that’s more like 2012 than 2010. The goal is to prevent Republicans from dominating the 2014 elections as they did in taking over the House in the 2010 midterms.
Meanwhile, the president has set a trap for Republicans. He’s agreed to reduce annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security as a (small) concession to justify a new round of negotiations for a grand bargain on taxes, spending, and the deficit. House and Senate Republicans have wisely rejected new talks, but this allows Obama to tar them as obstructionists who oppose serious deficit reduction to protect the rich from higher taxes.
That’s just the beginning. He’ll accuse them of obstructing gun control legislation, which died in the Senate last week with the defeat of expanded background checks of gun buyers. If immigration reform fails, Obama will blame Republicans for obstructing it, too.
Yet it’s unlikely Obama will have a decisive effect on the outcome in 2014. The deck is heavily stacked against him. History, the weak economy, and the arrival of Obamacare are on the GOP’s side. So is what the head of the House Republican campaign committee, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, calls “tiredness” of Obama. Presidential appeal atrophies in second terms.
The best thing going for the GOP in 2014 in Senate and House races is that few of their candidates are vulnerable. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report calls this “a lack of Republican exposure.” Every Republican Senate seat appears safe or close to it, and only a half-dozen House members are in districts that lean even slightly Democratic.
Wasserman lists 204 House seats as solidly Republican and another 28 as “likely” or “lean” Republican. That’s a total of 232, the same number Republicans currently hold and 14 more than a House majority of 218. Two Republican and 6 Democratic seats are tossups.
To win six Senate seats, Republicans are targeting Democrats in red states. West Virginia and South Dakota each have a vacant seat, and Republicans have a strong candidate for each. Arkansas has trended Republican more than any state in the past three years, and Republicans have attractive contenders for their Senate nomination there as well.
In the other red states with Democratic senators, the field of Republican candidates is still growing. Only Montana looks reasonably safe, for Democratic senator Max Baucus. Alaska is lopsidedly Republican, putting Sen. Mark Begich in jeopardy. In North Carolina in 2012, Republicans won everything. Ousting Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014 would complete their sweep. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu is the only statewide Democrat to have escaped a Republican onslaught—so far.
As good as all this looks for Republicans, it’s wise to remember that the future in politics is never a straight line projection of the present. The midterm elections are 18 months away. At this time in 2009, Democrats believed they were in fine shape for the 2010 midterms. They lost 63 House and 6 Senate seats.
Republicans need to be smart for a change. They can’t afford to be passive and assume the history of sixth-year midterms will carry them. To counter Obama, they should offer alternatives to the Obama policies they’ve defeated. And if the implementation of Obamacare is a train wreck, they should speak more in sorrow than anger. Nobody likes a gloater.