Senate Dems: Economy will save majority

Democrats are confident that a strong economy in 2014 will help them retain their Senate majority.

“If the economy continues to improve at the rate it’s improving by or more, we will hold the Senate, plain and simple,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

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Democratic senators speaking on the record are more cautious, but believe that the economy will boost their party’s chances of holding the upper chamber.

Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), one of the Democratic Party’s most vulnerable incumbents, said an improving economy “probably” will help him.

“I think the overall economy is resilient,” he said. “Sometimes the gridlock and bickering up here in Washington hurts the economy, but I think the economy will continue to get a little stronger over the course of the year.

“I assume that tends to help incumbents,” he added.

Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said there’s “no question” a rising economy will help Democrats retain the Senate.

“That’s really what people at home are focused on and that’s what they’ll make their judgments based on at the end of the day, whether they’re seeing economic growth,” he said.

Democrats have received good news in recent months on the economy, with the Commerce Department reporting that gross domestic product (GDP) expanded at an annualized rate of 4.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013.

Unemployment is down to 7 percent after four months in which employers have added more than 200,000 jobs per month. All of this has helped fuel a stock market rally while giving the Federal Reserve enough confidence to begin tapering its monthly bond payments program, which has helped stimulate the economy.

To be sure, there have been several false starts with the economy since the recession, and the Federal Reserve’s actions themselves could slow economic growth.

Still, Democrats are expressing new confidence at the beginning of the year about the economy, and they say they are seeing signs that Republicans are worried.

“I think Republicans basically fear that the economy will get better,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is not running for reelection. “They would be worried that this might translate into votes for Democrats.”

The White House and Senate Democrats are emphasizing economic issues in 2014 as they work to retain the Senate. Republicans must win six seats to achieve a majority — a tall order but not impossible, given some of the seats Democrats must defend.

The big theme for Democrats has been income inequality, something highlighted in this week’s fight over extending unemployment benefits.

Democratic strategists say making income inequality a preeminent issue will help rally their base, which has been frustrated by the error-prone rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Yet pressing the issue while simultaneously trying to portray the economy as greatly improved since President Obama took office in 2009 puts Democrats in a tricky situation.

They must walk a fine line between cheering positive economic signs and commiserating with millions of people who have seen little improvement to their financial security.

Experts warn the steady economic growth may not go far enough to quell voters’ dissatisfaction with the country’s direction — and its leadership in Washington.

“Whose economy are you talking about? Most of the bullish predictions on the economy leave out the inequality issue,” said Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Biden. “The question of ‘Will that growth reach the broader public?’ is an open one.

“Historically, at levels of unemployment that are expected to prevail throughout the year even with the improvements, the answer is, ‘Not so much,’ ” he added.

Axel Merk, president and chief investment officer of Merk Investments, said economic indicators can present a misleading picture of the nation’s economic health.

“A lot of these headline numbers that appear to be a little bit better are masking that people are very much disenchanted,” he said.

Merk also questioned whether headline economic indicators accurately reflect economic conditions. He noted that government agencies have included new measures and data for assessing GDP, which improved the appearance of the recovery.

Democrats argue the statistics are real, and a good reason for them to be confident.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), a senior member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, who is also retiring, thinks an improving economy will help Obama turn around his low approval rating, which is a liability for Democrats politically.

“I think things are going to start going [the president’s] way,” Rockefeller told The Hill before Christmas. “The economy is trending a little bit upwards.”

A Rasmussen poll released Tuesday found 49 percent of voters approve of Obama’s job performance, a 7-point rebound from the 56 percent who disapproved in a Rasmussen poll from late November, when ObamaCare’s problems were crippling the White House.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said an improving economy will rival ObamaCare as the year’s most important political variable.   

“The two biggest issues for 2014 will be, ‘Is the economy improving?’ and also, ‘How is the implementation of healthcare going?’ he said.

“In many ways both of those issues have an impact on how people see the president and the standing of the incumbent president will have some significance on some of these other races,” he added.