Midterms are tough on the President’s party. Almost without exception, the opposition makes gains in the House and the Senate, which can dramatically alter the balance of power and the effectiveness of the Chief Executive. For different reasons (war, economic problems, personal scandal), the President’s party usually suffers in midterms. In 1862 the GOP lost ground in national and state elections because of public disapproval in President Lincoln’s management of the Civil War. In 1918 Republicans won control of the Senate just days before the armistice that brought about the end of hostilities in World War I. While it is questionable whether President Wilson would have been able to ratify the League of Nations if the Democrats would have kept control, with the GOP in power in the Upper Chamber for the first time in eight years there was virtually no chance of it passing afterwards and left Wilson politically feeble during his last two years of his presidency. Even popular presidents like FDR and IKE took a beating during the midterm elections halfway through their second terms: In 1938 Democrats lost 6 seats in the Senate and a whopping 72 in the House. Republicans got blown out in 1958, losing 12 Senate seats and 48 in the House.
In our modern political era, Republicans lost control of the Senate in 1986 and, as a result, could not overcome Democratic opposition to Robert Bork the next year to elevate him from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (which the Senate had unanimously consented to in 1981) to the Supreme Court. In 1994 the Republicans devastated the Democrats in a stunning rebuke of Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, making a GOP Speaker for the first time since 1954 and bringing back Bob Dole as Majority Leader in the Senate. In 2006 George W. Bush’s unpopularity decimated Republican ranks losing 6 Senate seats and 31 House seats passing control to the Democrats in the midst of what was (then) considered a quagmire in Iraq. In 2010, President Obama’s unpopular health care initiative lead to a crushing defeat in Congress; a loss of 7 Senate seats and 63 House seats. While Republicans didn’t gain control in the Senate they did in the House, a minor miracle considering how far in the wilderness the GOP House caucus was in 2009-1010.
What will this mean for the upcoming 2014 midterms? If history is a guide, the Democrats should lose seats in both chambers. Of course, if the Republicans nominate more Todd Akins than all bets are off. The GOP has made some colossal blunders in recent races (Missouri and Indiana in 2012, Delaware and Nevada in 2010), had near misses (Colorado and Washington in 2010, North Dakota in 2012), and just some rotten luck against strong Democratic GOTV efforts (Wisconsin, Montana and Massachusetts 2012). To gain control the GOP would have to pick up 6 seats; a big number but one that is possible for three reasons, weak first term Senators brought in through the Obama wave, retirements and red state Democrats.
THE RED STATE DEMOCRATS
There are four red state Democrats that are particularly vulnerable with a possible fifth if the right candidate is selected. They all voted for ObamaCare, they all supported the stimulus, and have been reliable Democratic votes for the last six years. That’s going to be a tough sell in states that didn’t vote for Obama in 2012. Kay Hagan of North Carolina benefitted from a tremendous Obama GOTV effort in North Carolina in 2008, beating Elizabeth Dole by eight points. She won’t have that advantage in 2014; in the last two elections Republicans have done extremely well in the Tar Heel State, winning the state legislature in 2010 and easily winning the governorship in 2012. The Congressional delegation in 2009 was 8 Democrats and 5 Republicans, now its 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats. North Carolina has been tough on senators; incumbents lost in 1992, 1998 and 2008 and in 2004 the open seat turned over as well.
Tim Johnson of South Dakota may be in the most jeopardy. The three-term Democrat beat incumbent Larry Pressler by 2% in 1996 and squeaked by John Thune in 2002 (among allegations of voter fraud). In 2008 Johnson won easily as the GOP didn’t seem serious about mounting a strong challenger and many Dakotans felt sorry for Johnson after his long recovery from a major stroke the year before. This year, however, former Governor Mike Rounds has announced his intention to run. The popular Republican will probably give Johnson reason to retire. Facing Rounds in the sixth year of President Obama’s term would almost certainly spell the end of Johnson’s Senate career. I predict Johnson will retire and Rounds will easily walk into the Senate.
Mark Begich of Alaska got a big break in 2008 when he ran against scandal-tarred incumbent Republican Ted Stevens. With Stevens’ trial lasting until just a few days before the 2008 election, Begich was able to squeak by him as voters in this GOP state turned away from him after almost thirty years of service. There are plenty of Republicans who would be competitive in 2014 but Begich is running and should be competitive. I suspect he’ll try to replicate what Jon Tester did in Montana. Tester, elected by a slim margin in 2006 against another scandal plagued GOP opponent, was able to pull off a victory against a well-known Republican politician by appearing as a moderate in a conservative state. Even though Tester won with less than 49% of the vote he still won by a comfortable four-point margin.
Mary Landrieu is an interesting case. A Louisiana politician, she was first elected by an eyelash in 1996 in a fraudulent election against Woody Jenkins (who eventually took his case to the US Senate but it was dismissed and Landrieu was seated.) She won with 52% in 2002 and 2008 but should be in for the fight of her life. Almost the entire Louisiana congressional delegation and all of the elected statewide officers are Republicans. Her only hope is if whomever comes out of a tough primary is so bloodied that he’ll be unable to compete in the general election. Elections are different if Louisiana, anyone can run in the first round (on the regular election day) and if no one gets 50% then the top two will run off. The easiest option for the GOP would be to simply have one major candidate run against Landrieu and try to topple her in the first round by getting a majority of the votes. It will be tough to convince aspiring Republicans who would like to ascend to the Senate to sit out in favor of one candidate.
Perhaps the most interesting case is in Arkansas. Mark Pryor is a popular Democrat who bested a GOP incumbent in 2002 and was unopposed in 2008. Surely he’ll have opposition this time as the winds of change have blown through the Natural State. The other Democratic incumbent, Blanche Lincoln, was crushed by 21% in 2010. In 2009, the Arkansas congressional delegation had 3 Democrats and 1 Republican. Now, all four seats are in GOP hands providing a bench for possible candidates.
Iowa and West Virginia rarely throw out incumbents. In Iowa, the last time an incumbent was beaten was 1984 when Tom Harkin first entered the Senate. Now that he’s retiring it will be the first open seat in the Hawkeye State in more than three decades. If he would have run again he’d be tough to beat, but with him out of the picture the GOP will have an even shot against him. In West Virginia the last time there was an open seat election was 1984 when Jay Rockefeller squeaked in after pouring millions of dollars into this small state. Since then he’s had no credible opposition but decided to announce his retirement after internal polling showed Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito even with him.
Carl Levin of Michigan hasn’t announced yet if he’s retiring but he hasn’t been hitting the fund raising circuit and I’d bet he’ll call it quits after six terms. If so, that will leave a bit of an opening for the GOP. The Republicans did well in Michigan in 2010 and should be able to put up a strong candidate if Levin throws in the towel.
WEAK FIRST TERM DEMOCRATS
Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire should be vulnerable in 2008. Riding a Democratic wave in the state, it has gone from red to blue to red and now back to blue with remarkable speed. Once a reliable Republican state, the GOP hasn’t elected a governor in a decade and got clobbered in 2006 and 2008 in state and federal elections. In 2010 the GOP did very well up and down the ticket but got hammered again in 2012. It remains to be seen if the GOP will mount a credible challenger. Shaheen would be tough to beat but if there was ever a time to beat a Democrat in a light blue state it would be in the sixth year of a Democratic administration.
Mark Udall of Colorado should be vulnerable but the state hasn’t been kind to Republicans lately. The GOP ran a bad candidate for governor in 2010 and Ken Buck lost the Senate election that year by less than 2% after being ahead for weeks. Republicans had thought they had a great chance to deliver the state to Mitt Romney only to be greatly disappointed on election night. It remains to be seen whether the GOP can put the right candidate and the right message together to win in the Centennial State.
Perhaps New Mexico, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Delaware (and perhaps even Illinois if Dick Durbin retires) will be in play but the GOP would have to field the right candidates under the right conditions. Again, the sixth year of any modern president’s administration is usually a tough one electorally. As we head into yet another campaign season we’ll have to see what conditions (especially the economy) are like in 2014 as that will most likely be the biggest reason someone votes Republican or Democrat in 2014.