Republicans are in the strongest position to win back the Senate since losing it eight years ago.
Over several months, the party has expanded its range of targeted seats, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has helped defeat insurgents it didn’t want representing the GOP in the midterm elections.
And Democrats are increasingly realizing that President Obama’s approval rating will probably remain mired at 45 percent or lower until Election Day, giving Republicans ammo.
As their difficulties mounted, Senate Democrats met with the president at the White House on Wednesday evening.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), perhaps the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, said she would confront Obama over his failure to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline and expand natural gas exports.
“I personally don’t agree with this White House on everything,” she said. “I have a divergent view on a lot of the energy policies.”
Earlier this week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), another red-state Democrat, vented her irritation with the administration when she called IRS Commissioner John Koskinen “arrogant.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and other Democrats criticized Obama’s recent decision to release five senior Taliban commanders from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She is ready to put that dispute into the past, she said Wednesday, adding that Obama made the right move in inviting his colleagues to the White House for talk and cocktails.
“It’s all ancient history now,” she said peaceably, adding, “I think this is a positive thing to do.”
But a Democratic strategist said: “There’s going to be a lot of vocal anger and frustration. They’re going to hear a lot of, ‘You guys [have] got to have your house in order.’”
Details of Wednesday’s discussion were not available at press time.
But it is clear Democrats are nervous. After Republicans flopped in the last two Senate election cycles, the GOP establishment fought and frequently defeated the Tea Party candidates that Democrats hoped to face.
Meanwhile, conservative nonparty committees have already spent $68.2 million this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by Charles and David Koch, has pledged $125 million against Democratic candidates.
“After having failed to take the Senate the last couple cycles, the other side is pulling out all the stops and that has raised awareness among Democrats about the outcome of the election. The political money has raised that level of awareness,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist.
A notable difference between 2014 and 2010, when Republicans won control of the House in a landslide, is that the GOP’s brand has taken a tumble, Democrats say. It’s not clear that will help incumbent Democratic senators when Congress’s approval rating is hovering around 10 percent.
“It’s a crapshoot. … It’s not just an anti-Dem year, it’s an ‘anti’ year, and we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. “I don’t think the Republican nominees are all that they’re cracked up to be.”
Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R) surprise victory Tuesday in the Mississippi primary deprived Democrats of what they expected to be a bright spot in the general elections.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted a few weeks ago that Democratic candidate Travis Childers would have a “real chance” if he faced Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel instead of Cochran.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Michael Bennet (Colo.) acknowledged Republicans “nominated the more electable candidate” in Mississippi, but he tried to identify a silver lining, saying it wasn’t necessarily a setback because “our candidates are well inside the mainstream of conventional American political thought.”
While Tea Party candidates have failed to upset GOP establishment candidates in Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma and North Carolina, Bennet said contested primaries have pushed establishment candidates into extreme positions.
Democratic officials say the stances Republicans have taken on abortion, birth control and climate change will prove liabilities in November.
A Democratic senator facing reelection this November said Obama’s low approval rating has put a strain on his relationship with allies in Congress.
“I think the relationship, us being frank with each other and talking is good, but the troubling thing for Democrats, especially in red states, is the president’s unpopularity, which doesn’t seem to be coming up,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity. “It’s a tense time.”
Obama has done 10 fundraising events for the DSCC and four additional joint events with the Senate campaign arm and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. First lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden have also attended fundraisers to help Senate Democrats.
Schumer said Wednesday that Obama will play a crucial role this fall touting the Democrats’ populist economic agenda.
“The coordination between the White House and Senate Democrats has never been better, and the president is helping to amplify our Fair Shot agenda every step of the way,” he said.
Still, independent handicappers say the GOP has a better than 50 percent chance of taking control of the Senate.
Democrats believe that competitive races in traditionally Republican Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas can energize donors by disrupting the prevailing narrative that the party is in trouble.
The White House says it has set in motion a plan by which the president is effectively distinguishing Democratic candidates from Republicans. Campaign experts, however, say that will be challenging, especially as red-state Democrats seek distance from the president.