Friday, April 18, 2014

More About the Midterms

We're roughly 6½ months from the midterm elections.

With a split Congress, the priorities for both political parties have been predictable, haven't they? I mean, the Democrats have the Senate and would like to have the House, too. The Republicans have the House, and they would like to take over the Senate. All things being equal, either could happen — and neither could happen.

CNN's Ashley Killough reports that the political terrain is getting worse for Democrats. Killough reports that five Senate races that were previously thought to be reasonably safe for Democrats have become competitive. That is based on information from a memo from the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — so take it with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Until the votes are counted in November, of course, anything (theoretically) is possible, but, as I have pointed out before, midterm elections don't usually work out too well for the president's party, especially in the second midterm of a president's tenure.

Historically speaking, therefore, since Democrats hold the White House, they are likely to experience setbacks in the midterms — unless something dramatic happens that has clear benefits for the president's party. How severe those setbacks will be is unclear.

With each passing day, the likelihood of something dramatic happening lessens.

How's it looking to observers so far?
  • Over at Sabato's Crystal Ball, the emphasis lately is on the House of Representatives, which Democrats had hoped (and, presumably, still do) to flip in the fall.

    At one time, the Democrats with whom I spoke expressed optimism upon hearing of the retirements of Republican incumbents. Based on my highly unreliable conversations, that mood has shifted. In more recent weeks and months, the Republicans with whom I have spoken have expressed the same sense of optimism regarding the retiring Democrat incumbents.

    Actually, writes Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor for the Crystal Ball, "the degree of turnover in the House this cycle is not unusually high." An average of slightly more than 70 House members leaves every two years, Skelley writes, "about one–sixth of the total House membership."

    So far, 50 members of the House are leaving for one reason or another. Some are retiring. Others are seeking other offices. The reasons for a member's departure can be many (including losing a bid for renomination) and additional retirements may be announced, but, considering we are now better than midway through April, you have to wonder if the number of retirements will even reach the average.

    Currently, the Crystal Ball anticipates a gain for Republicans in the House of 5–8 seats. That is roughly what the Rothenberg Political Report projects.

    To people who haven't been watching elections too closely until, say, the last 10 years or so, that may seem like a low number. In the context of other recent elections, I suppose it is. In the last five election cycles, either Republicans or Democrats gained at least 21 House seats three times.

    But those other two elections, in which one party or the other gained fewer than 10 seats, were more typical of American legislative elections.

    An election in which one party or the other wins as many seats as the parties did in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is seen as a transformational year by political observers.

    Charlie Cook's Cook Political Report finds 17 House seats up for grabs. If all those seats were held by Republicans and Democrats carried each, it would be enough for the Democrats to seize control of the House.

    The problem is that only four of those seats are held by Republicans. The rest are in Democrat hands. To win the House, it looks more and more like Democrats will need something dramatic to happen.
  • The latest Rothenberg Political Report finds Stuart Rothenberg obsessing over the rumor that outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius might challenge Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas.

    Rothenberg wrote that his initial response to a New York Times article that reported Sebelius, a former two–term governor of Kansas, was "considering entreaties from Democrats who want her to run" was that Democrats "had to be encouraged," given the difficulty they have had in recruiting quality candidates to challenge Republican incumbents.

    "After that," wrote Rothenberg, "I quickly came to my senses." He pointed out the things that occurred to me immediately upon hearing that Sebelius was considering making a run — things that should have given her pause if she really was thinking about it. Maybe they did.

    It is true that, at one time, Sebelius was a popular figure in Kansas. She was elected governor in 2002 with more than 53% of the vote, and she was re–elected in 2006 with 58% of the vote.

    But she was perceived as more of a centrist then.

    "I remember interviewing her years ago," Rothenberg writes, "when she was running for governor. She was all business. No chit–chat. Not much personal warmth at all. She was all about Kansas and managing things properly."

    That image has been transformed by the Obamacare experience. It is no secret that Sebelius' name is intricately tied to Obamacare, which is not popular in red–state Kansas. Her boss for the last five years, Barack Obama, got 41% of the vote in Kansas when he first sought the presidency in 2008, and that dropped to 38% of the vote when he ran for re–election in 2012.

    If Sebelius had run for the Senate, Obamacare would have been front and center, keeping the story in the headlines and benefiting Republicans elsewhere at a time when Democrats have been trying to change the subject to ... anything.

    Then there is Kansas' electoral history in Senate races. It hasn't been unusual for Democrats (even Democrat women) to be elected governor of Kansas — rare but not unusual — but Kansans haven't voted to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since (appropriately) the year before the premiere of "The Wizard of Oz."

    Rothenberg concluded that the Senate seat is safe for Roberts — and, apparently, so did Sebelius.

    Republicans need to win six seats to take control of the Senate. Rothenberg currently thinks a gain of 4–8 seats is probable. The Crystal Ball says Republicans appear likely to win four Senate seats with three more rated tossups. The Cook Political Report is a little more conservative right now, saying that three Democrat–held seats appear likely to flip and five more are up for grabs. But it also says two Republican–held seats are in jeopardy.
  • Those observers analyze politics professionally. I only do it on an amateur level.

    But, at this stage of a midterm campaign, I think it is useful to compare presidential job approval ratings for presidents in their second midterm election years.

    About a week ago, the McClatchy/Marist poll reported that Obama's approval rating was 45%. That's better than some polls, not as good as others, but it is the most recent one of which I am aware.

    How does that compare to other presidents in their second midterm election years?

    Well, Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, had an approval rating of 39% in a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in April 2006. Bush seldom enjoyed approval ratings of 40% or higher in 2006. His Republicans suffered, losing six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

    In April 1998, Bill Clinton had just survived an attempt to impeach him, and he was enjoying consistent approval ratings in the 60s. Thanks to the backlash against the impeachment attempt, the party division in the Senate was unchanged, and Clinton's Democrats actually gained four seats in the House.

    Ronald Reagan was facing his second midterm election in 1986. In mid–April of that year, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 63%. Reagan's Republicans lost eight Senate seats and five House seats.

    The circumstances of the midterm election of 1974 were unique in American history. Richard Nixon had been re–elected in 1972, but he resigned about three months before the midterm election of 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, had to face the wrath of the voters in the grip of Watergate backlash.

    Nixon was still president in April 1973, and Gallup reported his approval rating at 26%. Republicans lost five Senate seats and 49 House seats.

    Dwight Eisenhower faced his second midterm election in 1958. In April 1958, Gallup reported his approval rating at 55%. 1958 was a tough year for Ike. His approval dipped below 50% in late March for the first time in his presidency. In November, Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats.

    Harry Truman wasn't elected president, but he wound up serving most of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth term, and he presided over the midterm elections of 1946. The midterms of 1950 were the second midterms of his presidency, and, in the spring of 1950, his stunning victory in the 1948 presidential election was a distant memory, and he was fluctuating from the 30s to the 40s in his Gallup job approval ratings. Democrats lost six Senate seats and 29 House seats.

    Roosevelt had his own troubles. In the spring of 1938, with the second midterm of his presidency approaching, FDR's approval rating was 54% less than two years after he was re–elected in a landslide. In November, Roosevelt's Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

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