Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Early Look at the 2014 Midterms

States in blue are represented by Democrats in the Senate. States in red are represented by Republicans.
States in gray do not have U.S. Senate races on their ballots in 2014.

History has shown time and time again that midterm elections are not usually kind to a president's party, especially the second midterms of a presidency.

Heading into 2014, both parties expressed optimism that they could flip the congressional chamber that is held by the other. For a number of reasons, though — including the trends of history — the Republicans currently appear to be in a better position to do that.

Assuming that either is successful.

The Republicans' goal in the 2014 midterms is to hold on to majority status in the House (where they outnumber Democrats by 33 seats) while capturing the Senate (where they are outnumbered by 10, including the two independent members who usually side with the Democrats). For the Democrats, obviously, the objective is reversed — hold the Senate and flip the House.

The Democrats face more of an uphill assignment. To win even a minimal House majority, they must retain all the seats they currently hold and win 17 seats that are currently held by Republicans.

It is hard to flip House seats because districts usually are drawn to favor one party or the other, depending upon who did the redistricting after the latest Census. State lines aren't redrawn every 10 years so Senate races are governed by different dynamics.

Incumbents tend to be harder to beat in district races than statewide races, and they become harder to beat the longer they hold office.

Political observers are watching Florida's 13th District on the state's western coast, which is holding a special election March 11 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Rep. Bill Young, a Republican who held that seat since 1971.

On the surface, that might lead the casual observer to conclude that a Republican is a lock to replace Young, but the district is not that predictable.

It is true that Young was unopposed roughly one–third of the time during his career, and that enabled him to consolidate a reliable base that produced solid victories whenever he was opposed.

His most recent victories were not as impressive as his earlier ones, but they were substantial. In 2012, when the 81–year–old Young ran against a 38–year–old Democrat who tried to make an issue of his age, 58% of the district's voters still voted for him.

It is also true, however, that Young was more moderate than many of his Republican colleagues, especially on economic issues. He supported raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits. During what turned out to be his final House race, he supported withdrawing from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, earning praise from Democrats like MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

The district has been trending Democrat nationally. It voted (narrowly) for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and Democrats are hoping to make a dent in their House deficit by winning this election.

In short, the district that Young represented is not necessarily representative of other Republican–held districts across the country so what happens there in two months probably will have little bearing on other House races in 2014. House races have unique personalities. They're usually driven by issues that directly concern the voters in particular districts. The same issues may not be as important in other districts within the same state or region.

(For awhile, I worked for a newspaper in a county that was heavily dependent on the aluminum industry. There were two aluminum plants in that county, and they were the county's two largest employers. Issues affecting the aluminum industry were of great interest to the voters there — but not to voters who lived in neighboring counties.)

Those voters may always be motivated by local issues in every federal–level election, but their influence is diminished in statewide races. Individual districts are more concentrated.

For a few reasons, it is easy to conclude that the Democrats just might win this seat from the Republicans. The Democrat in the race is Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and the Democratic nominee for governor four years ago (she lost a squeaker to Rick Scott). The Republican candidate, David Jolly, is a former lobbyist who was also Young's aide.

Thanks to her gubernatorial campaign, Sink has far greater name recognition, which has helped her in the polls. And the district is precisely the kind of district Democrats need to seize from Republicans if they hope to take control of the House. (The problem for Democrats is, I don't see enough districts across the country that meet that description.)

Currently, it seems as if this race is the Democrat's to lose — but there is a potential fly in the ointment. Sink doesn't seem to be a very strong campaigner. That might be a problem, considering the issues that directly affect voters in the 13th.

The 65–year–old Sink seems to be trying to counter that image with a family oriented commercial featuring her father. That probably can't hurt in a district that is older than most (27% of the voters are over 65).

Recent poll results show Jolly with a four–point lead, suggesting that Obamacare may be sinking Sink. Adam C. Smith of the Tampa Bay Times writes that Sink would be wise not to underestimate her opponent.

"This is not just another congressional election," writes Smith. "Congressional District 13 is the ultimate swing district, and both national parties will cast it as a national barometer of the nation's political mood."

Many things could affect that mood. The economic climate could change, and the nature of such a change might favor either candidate. If the next two jobs reports are as poor as the most recent one, it would be likely to help Jolly. If the reports are better in February and March, it might help Sink.

Another wild card in the race will be developments in the implementation of Obamacare, which is likely to be an issue in districts from coast to coast — and, in older districts like Florida's 13th, changes in Social Security benefits will always draw attention.

Then there is the general tenor of the campaign. Coming as early in the election cycle as it does, this special election will receive a lot of national attention. The campaign's tone will say a lot — and shrill, divisive campaigning may well backfire, given the fact that the winner will succeed a man who was seen as bipartisan by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Negative campaigning may not work as well in 2014 as it has in campaigns past (but may still work in other campaigns in other places this year).

Smith is right. Whoever wins, the victorious party likely will be doing a lot of strutting the day after votes are counted. Right now, I am inclined to think the Democrats will be doing the strutting, but, even if they are, they should remember that special elections are notoriously bad indicators of what to expect in the fall. Nearly eight months will pass between the time the Florida 13th voters go to the polls and the rest of America does. The landscape is likely to look different in November.

If Sink wins, it will simply mean Democrats need to capture 16 Republican–held House seats instead of 17 — and I believe that is highly unlikely. Historically, only Theodore Roosevelt's Republicans (in 1902) and Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats (in 1934) have come close to seizing that many House seats in an election in which the president was not on the ballot.

Realistically, it has never been done on the scale that Democrats need this year.

Currently, most observers think only one other Republican–held seat (besides the one that is the subject of the special election in Florida) is likely to flip. That may change in the months to come, but it shows the enormity of the task facing Democrats this year.

The task is less daunting for the Republicans, who need to win six seats to control the agenda in the Senate. If they win five seats, the chamber will be split 50–50, but Vice President Joe Biden casts the deciding vote in case of a tie so, technically, Democrats will retain the majority if they lose five seats.

Observers agree that Republicans are closer to achieving their goal than Democrats are to achieving theirs. Three Democrat–held Senate seats in states Mitt Romney carried in 2012 — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — appear likely to flip. Two other Democrat–held seats, in Arkansas and Alaska, are rated too close to call.

I'll add to that that I see three other incumbent Democrats (from Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina) who could be in trouble this fall. In short, Republicans seem likely to win at least three and possibly as many as eight Democrat–held seats, nearly all in states that voted against Obama in 2012.

None of the Republican–held Senate seats that will be on the 2014 ballot seems to be in danger of flipping.

I'll probably have more to say about other Senate races later this year, but, right now, I am looking at the Democrat–held seat in my native state of Arkansas, and I have concluded that it is likely to fall to the Republicans.

When I was growing up there, incumbent Democrats faced their only serious opposition in the party primary. They didn't always face Republican opponents, and, if they did, the Republicans were little more than place fillers on the ballot.

Both of the state's U.S. senators and three of the four members of its House delegation were Democrats. It stayed that way in Arkansas long after I left the state, too, but the Republican Party has made considerable gains in recent years. Today all four of the House members are Republicans, as is one of the senators.

The lone remaining Democrat in Arkansas' congressional delegation, Mark Pryor, happens to be the son of a former senator, David Pryor, who represented southern Arkansas in the House before becoming governor and then senator.

Being in Arkansas during one of his campaigns must be like a blast from the past for many Arkansans. Mark Pryor looks a good deal like his father (not unlike the way George W. Bush resembles his father). He even uses the same design that his father used for campaign paraphernalia. I couldn't begin to guess how many bumper stickers, yard signs and lapel buttons I have seen with that red–white–and–blue background on a map of the state with Pryor emblazoned in the middle.

(The absence of any mention of a particular office meant the design could be recycled in every election. I didn't live in Pryor's congressional district, but I saw that design in his gubernatorial and Senate campaigns. Sometimes the stickers were so faded that you couldn't tell from which campaign they came.)

Pryor's father was a pretty popular fellow. He won nearly all of his campaigns and was elected to the Senate three times before he retired. I'm sure the residual good will helped his son in his first two Senate elections.

Both of Pryor's previous victories came before Barack Obama took office, though, and Obama and his agenda have proven to be very unpopular in Arkansas. Well, Obama never really was popular in Arkansas. More than 58% of Arkansans voted for John McCain in 2008, and more than 60% voted for Mitt Romney.

Mark Pryor has been a faithful supporter of Obama's agenda, voting for the $787 billion stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, neither of which is popular in Arkansas.

But Pryor has proven to be more conservative than his father, and he has been known to reach across the aisle for Republican input during legislative standoffs. That might help him in this year's campaign.

His Republican opponent is Tom Cotton, who was elected in 2012 to represent the district that Pryor's father represented in the House decades ago.

Thanks to new boundaries the district acquired after the last Census, it is a more conservative district than it used to be, and Cotton is more conservative than anyone who has represented it in the past. A friend of mine who still lives in Arkansas describes him as being like Texas' Ted Cruz.

That seems to play well in Arkansas. Recent polls suggest a close race between Pryor and Cotton.

I think it will be worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the year.

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