Dems can't count on economy to save them in midterm elections

President Obama and Democrats might not be able to rely on the economic recovery to bolster their chances in November’s midterm elections.

Even though there has been a raft of positive economic news recently, experts in crucial battleground states caution that other issues, notably ObamaCare, could loom even larger than the economy. 

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They also add that congressional races, whether for the House or Senate, could swing as easily on local priorities as on broader questions of the national economy. And in some cases, the local economic story is different from the emerging national trend.

For the GOP to wrest control of the Senate, the party needs to pick up six seats.

In Arkansas, where Republicans fancy their chances of ousting incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, the unemployment rate has edged up over the past 12 months and, at 7.5 percent, is now above the national average.

In Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu is the Democrat under threat, unemployment has also ticked up year-on-year — but only to 6.3 percent, a figure that is relatively healthy, at least in comparison to the country at large.

A mirror image of that situation is found in North Carolina, a battleground, where the GOP is seeking to topple Sen. Kay Hagan (D). Unemployment has dropped more precipitously in the Tar Heel State than anywhere else in the country, falling a full two percentage points between November 2012 and November 2013. Yet it still remains high, at 7.4 percent.

“I think there is a general sense that the state could be doing better, but I’m not sure the U.S. Senate race is going to be a referendum on the state economy,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. “Healthcare will be huge, and the real question for me is how much does the election end up being a referendum on each party’s brand?”

Democrats would, of course, hope that a rising economy nationally would help their brand. The national unemployment rate is now 7 percent, which is a significant decrease from 7.8 percent a year ago. At the same time, unemployment remains elevated in historical terms, and much of the drop in the unemployment rate has come from people leaving the workforce.

Still, in late December, the official estimate of economic growth in the third quarter of 2013 was revised upwards, to an annualized rate of 4.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the stock market has been booming. On Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the more broad-based S&P 500 both ended the year at all-time highs. 

If the markets have another boom year in 2014 — even if the S&P cannot replicate its 29 percent advance in 2013 — it would surely bolster the sense of economic wellbeing among many voters.

Some experts do believe Democrats could benefit as a result, but they caution that robust economic growth during 2014 is, by no means, a given. 

Ray Fair, an economics professor at Yale University, is best known in political circles for a complex statistical model that has predicted the outcome of presidential and congressional elections with considerable (though not flawless) accuracy.

“The basic idea is that, if the economy is okay — reasonably good but not terrific — then it looks like a close election. If the economy is really good, it’s going to favor the incumbent party in the White House,” he said.

But, Fair added, it would be Republicans who will be favored come Election Day if the economy “tanks.”

There may not appear to be much chance of that happening right now, but Democrats know they have seen false dawns before — notably when the Obama administration heralded the summer of 2010 as “recovery summer.”

In any event, skeptics argue the ways in which economic debates play out at a state level are too tangled to conform to any national model.

Take Louisiana, for example. There, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been touting the state’s relative economic success, creating a complication for the GOP’s most likely opponent against Landrieu, Rep. Bill Cassidy, if he seeks to make malaise a centerpiece of his campaign.

“The economy here in Louisiana is coming back pretty strong right now,” said Robert Mann, director of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at Louisiana State University. “Unemployment took a little bit of an uptick, but there is a sense that we’re getting a boost from the oil and gas sector improvement. I think that probably hurts Cassidy’s ability to attack Landrieu on the economy.”

Those kinds of considerations can cut both ways. In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) is widely favored to become the GOP nominee against Hagan. While Democrats argue this provides an opening for attacking the legislature’s more unpopular actions, conservatives insist Tillis and the state’s GOP governor, Pat McCrory, could both claim credit for the falling unemployment rate.

“Having been in charge of the Republican House, with its platform of lowering corporate and personal tax rates, [Tillis] can say their polices worked,” said Theresa Kostrzewa, a GOP lobbyist in the state. “Both McCrory and the Republicans in the House put themselves on the line to help the economy. At this point, it looks like North Carolina has finally turned the corner.”

Kostrzewa insists that, for all the talk about the economy, another national issue will likely decide the election in the Tar Heel state.

“If the storm around ObamaCare is still a hurricane-strength storm next November, then it’s over,” she said. “In order for [Hagan] to win, it’s going to take ObamaCare being a much lower-level storm.”