Don’t Count Your Majorities Before They’re Hatched

One would have to be pretty much living under a rock to miss the emerging conventional wisdom that momentum for control of Congress has moved to the Republicans.
Maintaining their majority in the House has long been agreed to be pretty much a lock for the GOP – top Democratic strategists have been conceding continued opposition control since at least the beginning of the year. The Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report and Washington Post’s Election Lab are all forecasting slight gains for the Republicans, and the last gives Democrats less than one percent chance of retaking the body.
Which puts most of the attention on the Senate, where not only the Post but also the New York Times and Nate Silver’s 538 blog have been consistently pointing to solid Republican prospects, with projections ranging from a 57 to more than 80 percent chance of regaining the majority in the upper chamber. The political publication The Hill recently reported that “Democrats are starting to play the blame game as they face the possibility of losing the Senate in November.” When news of such circular firing squads begin to make its way into the media – with party insiders even allowing themselves to be quoted on the record – it’s always bad news for campaigns.
A host of reasons have been cited for Republican optimism (or Democratic pessimism, depending on your point of view):
• The six-year “itch:” In every election but one – 1998 – since Reconstruction in which a president was completing the sixth year of his term, the opposition party gained seats in both Houses of Congress.
• The GOP turnout advantage: More Republican voters appear at the polls in off-year elections, a factor which doesn’t show up in polls of registered voters.
• Playing in GOP territory: Seven of the Democratic-held seats being contested are in states won by Mitt Romney.
• Obama on the ropes: President Obama’s approval ratings, while improving recently, appear to be a drag on candidates. A recently released Gallup Poll shows that registered voters are more likely to view their votes in this year’s midterm elections as a message of opposition (32%) rather than support (20%) for the President – a gap similar to that faced by President Bush in 2006, a disastrous year for Republicans. Even recent polls in deep-blue New York and California show approval of the President at just 39 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
• Better GOP candidates: We’re not seeing the same kind of foot-in-mouth performances that cost the GOP near-certain wins in Missouri and Indiana in the last election, and Republican candidates have been more than holding their own during the debate season.
• Stronger-than-expected GOP showings: Republican candidates have all but locked down Democratic seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia (the New York Times’ model puts GOP chances in those states at over 99%), appear to be pulling away in Alaska, and are surprising in states previously written off, specifically Iowa and Colorado.
• Missteps by Democratic candidates, including an embarrassing leak of an internal memo from Michelle Nunn’s campaign in Georgia and Iowa’s Bruce Braley’s snub of popular GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
Still, a word to the wise to GOP partisans from one of your own: don’t count your majorities before they are hatched. Republicans have been in this position before and disappointed their partisans, and the reasons why it could go that way again are just as numerous as the bright spots:
• Too many “tossups:” Ten races are still put in that category by Real Clear Politics and 10 by Cook – one and three more than earlier this year, respectively. And although all the projection models continuing to show solid probabilities of the GOP retaking the Senate, those numbers are softening, which is to be expected as races tend to tighten as Election Day nears (and as, in some states, early voting has already begun). The Wall Street Journal reports, “Across the U.S., some races are so unstable that polls look promising one week and spell big trouble the next.”
• Recent history: We’ve all heard the excitement about surprisingly close races in the recent past. Most, notably Nevada in 2010 and Montana, Florida and Virginia in 2012, end with comfortable wins by the favored party.
• No wave: There is no sign to date of a so-called “wave” election that could sweep marginal Republicans to victory. In fact, while the Real Clear Politics average shows Republicans with a very slight lead in the generic ballot measuring straight party preference, the most recent Rasmussen results show Democrats up top. More important, however, there appears to be little intensity in this election: a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found huge voter apathy, with more than half of voters saying Washington would be unchanged by the midterm elections, regardless of the result.
• The power of Democratic incumbency: In the Senate, that factor is working in the Democrats’ favor. Endangered incumbents in states including Arkansas, Louisiana and especially North Carolina are hanging in or even holding slight leads. And the GOP has not knocked off more than two incumbents in a single year since 1980.
A particular factor worth highlighting is the surprising weakness of two GOP incumbents in deep red states who have been unable to shake off strong challengers:
• McConnell struggling in Kentucky: A recent poll found Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, in line to become Majority Leader if the Republicans retake the Senate, down two points to challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes after a string of previous surveys had appeared to show McConnell solidifying his position. Grimes recently had popular ex-President Bill Clinton, a family friend, in to stump for her.
• Roberts on the ropes in Kansas: Meanwhile, Kansas’s Pat Roberts, who won his last race with 60 percent of the vote, was softened up in the primaries by a conservative opponent who exposed the fact that the Senator does not have a residence in the state. Now, the three-term incumbent appears to be in deep trouble against Greg Orman, who is an running as independent and has not said with whom he will caucus. However, he has recently run for office as a Democrat and contributed money to Democratic candidates, and the Democratic Party pulled its candidate from the race to make it a one-on-one battle and thereby help Orman. Polls have consistently shown Orman up by between five and 10 points in the race, and both the 538 and LEO models show him with a strong likelihood (83 percent in the latter case) of pulling the upset.
But perhaps the “sleeper” factor is the Democrats’ growing skill – especially in 2012 but also in 2013 in Virginia – in confounding the turnout model. The party has not only gotten more of its voters out, especially minorities, but have focused on issues that shift loyalties among Republican voters in key blocs such as single women. For that reason, expect to see the “war on women” theme pounded this fall in key battleground states to boost incumbents.
The bottom line is that the races are really just about to get interesting, and that a GOP Senate majority is far from in the bag. So fasten your seat belts.

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