Democrats should have seen this coming

Greg Nash

In the last week, D.C.’s conventional wisdom has quickly shifted toward the likelihood that Republicans will take back the Senate in this fall’s midterms.

But insiders, looking at voter enthusiasm, candidate strength, President Obama’s dismal approval numbers and the difficult terrain on which Democrats are fighting, have been saying as much for months.

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Stuart Rothenberg estimates Republicans will gain between four and eight seats in the Senate; they need six to regain a majority for the first time since the Democratic wave of 2006.

Charlie Cook has projections along the same line, and wrote this week, “[A]ll in all, it’s not a good situation for Democrats.”

After statistician Nate Silver last weekend put GOP chances of a takeover at better than even, Democrats were in a downright uproar. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a rare full-throated memo poking holes in Silver’s data-driven analysis, which they had crowed about in previous years, and other senators complained to The Hill that the prognosticator’s methods were flawed.

Their pushback was predictable. They said prognosticators who predicted Democrats would lose the Senate before were proved wrong.

Many Democrats point to GOP gaffes and flawed candidates from the past two cycles that cost Republicans winnable races as one reason they’re not in complete panic mode — yet. And scarce polling still shows them faring decently in many races.

But the 2014 environment isn’t shaping up to be another 2010 or 2012.

Not only did Democrats start off with a worse hand — defending 21 seats in some very red territory to the GOP’s 14 seats — they’re facing a much wider playing field and a president who’s even more unpopular now than he was four years ago.

In 2010, Democrats and Republicans were nearly evenly matched, defending 19 and 18 seats, respectively. Republicans gained six seats but left three other winnable races on the table in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware, where they nominated flawed candidates.

The Senate GOP’s missed opportunity was underlined in the 63 seats House Republicans won in the same election.

The sweeping gains had the GOP salivating in 2012.

The economy remained stagnant; President Obama’s approval rating was middling, and Democrats were defending 23 seats in the Senate to the GOP’s 10. Pickups — and maybe even a Senate majority — seemed certain.

Instead, the Obama turnout machine prevailed, and Democrats retained the White House and actually netted two Senate seats despite the rocky landscape, with Independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, replacing the retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in Maine.

Democrats frequently point to 2012 wins by Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Jon Tester in Montana in arguing they shouldn’t be counted out, even in GOP-leaning places. Obama lost those states badly, but Democrats still retained the two Senate seats.

In a sense, however, Obama’s placement on the ticket benefitted Democrats in 2012, even in states where he was unpopular.

Voters could split their tickets and pull the lever for a more independent-minded Democrat and still vote against Obama.

This year, if voters want to register their anger with ObamaCare and the economy, they can’t punish Obama. Instead, they’ll have to take it out on their local lawmakers: bad news for incumbents like Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska) or Mary Landrieu (La.).

Democrats also can’t clone Heitkamp, and turnout won’t reach anything near the levels it was for them in 2012, as this month’s special election in Florida proved.

That’s why Democrats will spend heavily on their field program and sophisticated voter targeting, the Bannock Street Project, especially in red states, where there was no infrastructure already in place. Early numbers show some of their most vulnerable incumbents are hanging on, even in rocky terrain like Arkansas. But that could likely change before November.

Landmine GOP candidates could still muddy the waters in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi. But even Tea Party challenges seem to have fizzled this year, with establishment groups promising to spend money defending stronger candidates.
Without their House majority in any real danger, early GOP outside money has focused almost exclusively on top Senate races. 
Republicans have also had a good year recruiting and will field solid candidates in purple states such as New Hampshire and Colorado, where Obama racked up consecutive wins.

GOP wins in those two states are far from likely, but Democrats will have to spend money and resources, which could cut them in their defense of open seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana.

Democrats also face an enthusiasm gap, a worrisome trend that parallels 2010.

A CBS News poll released Wednesday showed 70 percent of Republicans say they’re enthusiastic about voting in this year’s midterms, compared to just 58 percent of Democrats.

What does all of this mean?

By the fall, given this atmosphere, Senate Democrats might be longing for the salad bowl days of 2010.