Saturday, June 7, 2014

We're Five Months Out ...

... and the landscape is looking pretty good for the Republicans.

There was a time when Democrats believed — or said they believed — that they could recapture the House and hold on to the Senate in 2014, giving the president a Democratic Congress with which to work in the final two years of his presidency.

But that idea seems to have disappeared. (I have a Democrat acquaintance who would call such a statement "rabid right." I think he's been drinking a bit too deeply from the left–wing Kool–Aid.) Presidential approval numbers have been stuck in the low to mid–40s for a year, and a president's party almost never fares well in midterms when the president is struggling.

That's from the lofty perspective of history, which is not infallible. Conventional wisdom said a black man could not be elected president, yet one has been elected president — twice. Conventional wisdom once said a woman could not be elected president, but two women have been nominated for vice president, one in each party, and it appears likely that, at some point, probably in the near future, a woman will be nominated as the standard–bearer for one of the parties.

The conventional wisdom is that midterms are difficult for every president, even the popular ones, although there have been cases in which the president's party did well in a midterm — and it is the hope for that miraculous victory, like Truman's upset win over Dewey in 1948, that always encourages losing candidates and parties. Typically, though, a political miracle like that in a midterm requires some sort of backlash against the other party or some other unusual circumstance (like the September 11 terrorist attacks) that prompts voters to rally around the flag.

Realistically, such a thing is still possible — and will remain possible until the votes are counted — but we're only five months out ...

... and, on the ground, the Rothenberg Political Report currently sees anything from no net gain to the gain of a few seats by the Republicans in the House. Sabato's Crystal Ball sees Republicans gaining between five and eight seats. The Cook Political Report doesn't see a great likelihood of a shift.

The Republicans already hold a 33–seat advantage; Democrats, as I say, believed — at one time — that they could wrest 17 seats from the Republicans and claim a slim majority. The closer we get to November, though, the more it looks like the Democrats will be lucky to avoid losing ground.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been keeping their eyes on the Senate, where flipping six seats would give the GOP a slim majority. Numerically, it seems like an easier task, doesn't? Truth is it's more of a challenge when you look at it as a percentage of the legislative body. Seventeen House seats represents less than 4% of the membership; six Senate seats is 6% of that body's membership.

Democrat–held Senate seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana currently are expected to flip, according to the Cook Political Report, Rothenberg Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball.

That gets the Republicans halfway to their goal. Cook sees seven tossups, only one of which is held by a Republican. Sabato sees four tossups, all held by Democrats. Rothenberg sees two pure tossups, both held by Democrats.

That suggests that the Republicans are in a good spot — and, if things proceed in this manner, they could start focusing on second–tier seats, the ones they probably never dreamed they might be able to win — until recently.

Like Tom Harkin's seat in Iowa.

Harkin is retiring after 30 years in the Senate. Alex Roarty writes in National Journal that Democrats need to be concerned about Harkin's seat. State Sen. Joni Ernst won the Republican nomination there this week; she still needs to demonstrate that she is a tough candidate, Roarty says, but she is facing a mediocre Democrat in a year that looks more Republican with each passing day, and she doesn't look like the kind of candidate who is likely to shoot herself in the foot.

In fact, recently, the one doing such shooting was her rival, who seems to have fired a machine gun at himself.

Persons who are unacquainted with Iowa's history may be inclined to look only at the returns in presidential elections; Iowa has voted for Democrats in six of the last seven, including two (Dukakis in '88, Gore in '00) who lost. But in eight of the nine elections before 1988, Iowa voted for the Republican nominee.

But what about the midterm elections since 1988? Well, Harkin was re–elected twice in midterm election years, and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley was re–elected in two midterms as well.

The governor is elected to a four–year term every midterm election year, and Democrats and Republicans have split those, 3–3.

That sounds to me like a state that really could go either way. It is also a state that seems to be quite comfortable with its incumbents. Harkin survived in years when it was risky to be a Democrat elsewhere; Grassley, who was elected in the Reagan Revolution of 1980, won his second term in the decidedly un–Republican year of 1986. The popular Republican governor is now the state's longest–serving — and the second–longest serving governor in the nation's history

Iowa has four representatives in the U.S. House. Two are Democrats, two are Republicans.

Recent polls show Ernst leading — by six points in the latest Loras College survey, by one point in the latest Rasmussen survey. Her Democratic opponent was leading in surveys held before the June 3 primaries.

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