Barring something entirely unforeseen, the Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives in November, and in the wake of Eric Cantor’s ouster, will be even less inclined to compromise with the White House. The key battle will be for the Senate, and at this point—given the unpopularity of President Obama and his programs in the states that could decide the outcome—the Republicans are a good bet to regain the Senate. The recent scandal involving Bowe Bergdahl and the older scandal about Benghazi won’t decide the outcome, but they are certainly not going to help the Democrats. It’s not 1998, when Republican exploitation of a White House sex scandal actually cost them seats in the House.
The Senate is currently divided between 55 Democrats (counting two independents who caucus with the Democrats) and 45 Republicans. Thirty-six senate seats are up for grabs this November. Of these, 21 are unlikely to change hands. Two Democratic seats in West Virginia and South Dakota are very likely to go Republican. Thirteen (assuming Chris McDaniel wins the runoff in Mississippi) could conceivably go either way, and of them, ten are held by Democrats. So if the Republicans were to hold their seats in Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, then they would have to win only four of the remaining ten seats in order to take back the Senate. That’s not a tall mountain to climb.
If you look at the 13 races, they are almost all in states where Obama and his signature programs, including the Affordable Care Act, gun control, and the plan to restrict carbon emissions from power plants, are very unpopular. That goes without saying in Southern states where Democrats are running for re-election. In Louisiana, Obama’s approval rating is at 41 percent and support for the ACA at 33 percent. In Arkansas, Obama’s approval is at 34 percent and Obamacare’s is at 31 percent. In North Carolina, Obama’s approval is at 41 percent. Fifty-two percent of registered voters in Arkansas, 58 percent in Louisiana, and 53 percent in North Carolina would not vote for a candidate who does not share their view of Obamacare. It’s likely that most of these are opponents of the president’s program.
But Obama and his programs don’t fare much better in Eastern, Midwestern, and Rocky Mountain states where Democrats are defending seats. In Iowa, Obama’s approval rating is at 42 percent and only 30.7 percent of Iowans think the country is on “the right track.” In Colorado, Obama’s approval is at 38 percent, Obamacare’s at 39 percent, and 73 percent think the shape of the national economy is either “not so good” or “poor.” In Michigan, 53 percent oppose Obamacare, and in New Hampshire 57.6 percent.
Obama’s climate initiative may help Democrats in 2016 and is popular in some states that the president carried in 2012, but it will probably not be popular in some of the crucial swing states this November. As the National Republican Senate Committee has noted, Arkansas, Colorado, West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky and Montana—all except Kentucky with Democratic incumbents—depend on coal for more than half their energy needs. Obama’s other initiatives are also not popular in some swing states. In Colorado, 56 percent of voters now oppose the state’s strict gun control laws. In Michigan, a plurality opposed Obama’s gun control proposals.
Obama and the Democrats seem poised to suffer from the “six year itch” that the president’s party has usually suffered during midterm elections of a second term. Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, and George W. Bush’s Republicans lost it in 2006. The exception was Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1998, who broke even in the Senate and won five House seats. That was because Clinton remained very popular, thanks to a booming economy. His job approval in the weeks before the election was in the low 60 percent range. The impeachment inquiry, which Republicans had hoped would discredit the president and the Democrats, actually helped the Democrats. Southern black voters, who enthusiastically backed Clinton and believed he was being unfairly targeted, turned out in large numbers.
But the Democrats’ situation this year is very different. The economy is still in the doldrums, Obama is unpopular, and Republican scandal-mongering is unlikely to generate a backlash. In 1998, many Democrats took offense at the Republican impeachment efforts because they were aimed not merely at censuring Clinton, but at unseating him. To date, the Republicans have not used the Benghazi and Bergdahl scandals to call for Obama’s removal. Instead, they have merely called for investigations. And as recent polls have shown, many Democrats and Independents, as well as Republicans, favor an investigation into Benghazi and are critical of the administration’s deal with the Taliban for Bergdahl’s release. That probably means that the scandals will be a small, and probably temporary, net plus for the Republicans. They will cast a pall over the White House and, with an assist from Fox News, fire up the Republican base.
The Democrats have not developed a national theme—comparable, say, to the Reagan administration’s “staying the course” in the 1982 election—to rally voters to their cause. Many of the Democratic candidates are trumpeting the party’s support for boosting the minimum wage and for women’s rights—two issues that are popular with voters—but few of the embattled Democrats are running on the White House’s record. With Obama and his programs so unpopular in the key election states, the Democrats in these states are desperately trying to distance themselves from the national party. Congressman Travis Childers, who is likely to face Tea Party favorite McDaniel in Mississippi’s senate race, actually has a very small chance of winning only because he voted against the Affordable Care Act. In Kentucky, Democrat Allison Grimes promised to “fiercely oppose” the president’s climate change plan. While the Republicans are seeking to nationalize the campaign, Democrats like Grimes or Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or Mark Pryor in Arkansas want to make the election all about themselves and not about their party or the President.
If these Democrats can pull this off, they might able to hold off the Republican challenge in November. Certainly, polls suggest that candidates like Landrieu, Pryor or Kay Hagan in North Carolina have a chance of winning. But at this point, it seems likely that Obama will have to face a Republican House and Senate next year. That’s a recipe for two more years of gridlock.
Correction: The article originally misidentified Chris McDaniel, the Tea Party candidate in Missisippi, as Josh McDaniel.