Somewhat belatedly, Democrats are realizing their party may take a political bath in November’s midterm congressional elections. Republicans are sure of it.
The official Democratic line, expressed by senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer and party chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is that the party will keep its Senate majority.
But Pfeiffer recently conceded on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “this is a tough map for Democrats” because so many races are in Republican-dominated states. Former senior adviser David Plouffe acknowledged on Bloomberg’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” “We have a turnout issue.”
And former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, displaying unusual candor, acknowledged on “Meet the Press,” “there is real danger the Democrats could suffer big losses,” including “definitely” their Senate majority.
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Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus showed greater confidence, telling a Christian Science Monitor breakfast he expects “a tsunami-type election” giving his party “a very big win,” especially in the Senate.
Priebus has political history and the underlying fundamentals on his side. Both favor a significant GOP victory this November that would include recapturing the Senate and increasing its House majority. It would severely limit President Obama’s chances of additional legislative achievements, barring an unexpected outbreak of bipartisan cooperation.
Still, Obama’s veto pen, and the ability of Senate Democrats to use the same procedural roadblocks as have GOP senators, could prevent even a solidly Republican Congress from passing many initiatives or killing Obama’s cherished Affordable Care Act.
For students of electoral history, a dire Democratic outcome has been in the cards for months.
In the past 80 years, only Bill Clinton in 1998 escaped a serious midterm defeat six years after gaining the White House. That was when the GOP’s ill-fated decision to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky affair backfired because a majority of Americans continued to support his conduct of the presidency.
Otherwise, the pattern has been clear. In seven such elections starting in 1938, the party controlling the White House lost from five to 72 House seats in sixth-year midterms and from four to 12 Senate seats. In most cases, the outcome foreshadowed success in the next presidential election.
Besides the numerical precedents, the political environment favors the Republicans. Obama’s job approval is hovering between the upper 30s and low 40s, in considerable part because of the continuing unpopularity of the health law. Many Democrats prefer to avoid him, except to help raise money.
A president’s ability to help his party in midterm elections is often overrated. Besides fundraising, a popular president can increase enthusiasm among his party’s troops and thus spur increased turnout. But Obama’s current standing makes his impact “poisonous,” as an unnamed Democratic lawmaker told the New York Times.
That’s especially true in races on the opposition party’s battlefield, as is the case this year. Because his big 2008 victory helped many senators who face re-election this year, they could suffer without Obama’s ability to turn out a big Democratic vote. The problem is especially acute in eight mainly Republican states, where either freshmen Democrats face their first re-election or popular Democrats retired.
Besides, the GOP has attracted credible opponents for freshmen Democrats in such swing states as Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia. In New Hampshire, former Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s belated decision to launch a campaign against freshman Democrat Jeanne Shaheen looks primarily precipitated by improving Republican chances.
By contrast, Democrats have very few potential GOP targets. In Georgia, they hope the possible nomination of an arch-conservative Republican would help Democrat Michelle Nunn, and in Kentucky, they hope to capitalize on Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s unpopularity.
In both 2010 and 2012, the nomination of several tea party activists cost the GOP a Senate majority. And a Republican success this year could be short-lived; the 2016 battlefield will feature re-election bids by a half-dozen freshman Republicans in states where Democrats could benefit from a big presidential vote.
Unfortunately, the sad fact underlying all of these potential outcomes is that neither party is going to win enough seats to break the current legislative gridlock. That makes it even more important that their leaders find a way to cooperate – something that has so far eluded them.