August 12, 2014

Republican Prospects in Congress Looking Up

The GOP’s lock on the House is relatively secure, while the Senate is within reach.

The GOP’s prospects in the midterm elections are looking good these days. Their lock on the House is nearly absolute at this point, barring an unforeseen political surprise. GOP wins in key gubernatorial and state legislature races in 2010 gave Republicans the upper hand in the 2012 gerrymandering of congressional districts. As a result, the reliable Cook Political Report counts just 16 districts as competitive this cycle, with 13 held by Democrats. Chalk one up for the incumbents.

The current makeup of the House, with 234 Republicans and 199 Democrats, means the minority party needs a pickup of 17 seats to gain control. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), head of the Democrats’ campaign efforts, refuses to concede the election just yet – but that’s his job. Voters are disgruntled with Congress on an historic level, and the GOP isn’t enjoying any surge in popularity. But Republicans have generally been better at drawing out midterm voters. To compound Democrat problems, their campaigner-in-chief, Barack Obama, is so unpopular that many of his party’s candidates are running away from him and hoping he doesn’t show his face in their districts.

Israel and his House cohorts may be holding out for a wave to improve their fortunes. This is unlikely. In the last 20 years, every wave election that took place – 1994, 2006, 2010 – was fueled by a backlash against the incumbent party that held the White House.

Republicans, confident they can hold the House, are turning their focus to taking over the Senate, where their chances are improving all the time. For better or worse, Lamar Alexander’s primary victory in Tennessee last week ensured that every GOP senator up for re-election will be the party’s nominee. Despite Democrats putting on a brave face, a field of Republican incumbents defending their seats will make it difficult for Democrats to increase or even maintain their hold on the Senate. The big worry right now for the majority party is holding on to the seats they already have.

Three open Senate seats currently held by Democrats will likely become Republican pickups. Sen. John Walsh of Montana, the man looking to claim a full term to the seat he was appointed to following Max Baucus’s retirement earlier this year, ended his campaign last week after succumbing to allegations of plagiarism during his time at the U.S. Army War College. Holding Baucus’s seat was already an uphill climb; now it’s nearly impossible. Open Democrat seats in West Virginia and South Dakota also look likely to swing Republican because they are fielding better candidates that are polling much stronger than what Democrats are offering.

Beyond these states, Republicans need three more pickups to take over the Senate, and they have room to maneuver. Democrat-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and Louisiana are all vulnerable. In Arkansas, despite the best efforts of incumbent Mark Pryor, challenger Tim Cotton, a House representative, is polling very well. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, despite a wide polling advantage over Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, may face a runoff against other Democrat challengers that will narrow her chances of keeping her seat in the long run.

The question marks for Republicans come in Kentucky and Georgia, both Republican seats that may be in jeopardy. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in what’s turning out to be a tough fight against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell has a slight edge, but his position as the driver of Republican legislation in the Senate has made him a prime target for Democrats, who are dumping a lot of resources into claiming his scalp. Georgia’s seat, open with the retirement of Republican Saxby Chambliss, is being strongly challenged by Democrat Michelle Nunn.

Just the same, Republicans clearly have solid opportunities to make gains in the midterms. Political winds and historical precedent are lining up in their favor. House and Senate GOP leadership are exciting their base and also trying to temper expectations. Should they win the day, the eyes of millions of disgruntled American voters will be upon them. What they will do next won’t necessarily bring an end to Barack Obama’s Reign of Error – he’s got that pen, after all – but it will put him in a box, and it can lead to a path toward better presidential choices in 2016.

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