Each party has their targets of opportunity this year - Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the governorships. At least that is the case in terms of political terrain, as measured by the 2012 presidential vote. Democrats must defend seven Senate seats in 2014 in states won two years ago by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while Republicans have only one senator up in a state carried by Democrat Barack Obama. However, on the gubernatorial side, the picture is basically reversed. Nine GOP gubernatorial chairs are up this year in Obama states, compared to just one Democratic governorship in a Romney state. The big difference between the two categories is that the vast majority of Romney-state Democratic Senate seats are in jurisdictions that are strongly Republican (voting for Romney by at least 10 percentage points), while most Obama-state GOP governors are in more competitive jurisdictions (favoring Obama in 2012 by less than 10 points).

Source: Rhodes-Cook Letter, April 2014

Key Resources: For more information on the key elections of 2012, read Chuck McCutcheon’s coverage of the most important elections of that year at the state and federal level.

Document Outline
A Look Forward to the 2014 General Elections

A Look Forward to the 2014 General Elections

There is an old adage that “a week is a lifetime in politics,” a saying that may be the Democrats’ best hope at this point in time. For if the 2014 midterm election was held now, the party would probably take a pretty good licking.

Democrats face three big problems – history, the electoral map, and the polls. History has rarely been kind to the president’s party in midterm elections. They almost always lose House seats and more often than not they also lose Senate seats.

Since the Civil War, the president’s party has gained House seats in just four midterm elections (1902, 1934, 1998 and 2002) and not once has the “in” party come close to netting the 17 seats that the Democrats would need this fall to win a House majority. The largest pick up has been nine seats, most recently attained in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first mid-term election in 1934.

On the Senate side, where Democrats will lose control if their net losses this year reach six, midterm losses of that magnitude by the president’s party are fairly common. Three times in the last seven midterm elections (1986, 1994 and 2006), the “ins” have lost at least a half dozen Senate seats and control of the nation’s upper chamber along with them.

Further boosting Republican Senate chances this year is a favorable electoral map. A majority of seats up this year (21 of 36) are being defended by the Democrats, including seven in states that favored Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Of these, six are in states that Romney carried by 10 percentage points or more, often much more.

In contrast, just one GOP senator is up this year in a state won by Barack Obama two years ago. That is Susan Collins of Maine, who has developed a brand of moderate Republicanism that has played well among voters “Down East.”

Sometimes a popular president – one with a job approval rating above 50% - can help frame the midterm political environment to his party’s advantage, or at least mitigate the prospect of significant losses. But Obama’s approval numbers of late have been mired in the low-to-mid 40% range, about in line with the positive scores for his signature achievement, Obamacare.

The president is currently in undesirable polling territory occupied by two of his Democratic predecessors, Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Bill Clinton in 1994, as well as Obama himself in 2010. In all three midterms, the Democrats suffered major congressional losses.

In several ways, though, the Democrats are in better shape than 2010, when they lost a staggering 63 House seats (the most by the president’s party in any midterm election since 1938).

The economy, as measured by the unemployment rate, is better now than it was four years ago. On the eve of the 2010 election, it approached 10%; the latest figure for April was down to 6.3%.

The Democrats enjoy some targets of opportunity of their own, particularly in the governorships, where 22 of the 36 chairs are being defended by the Republicans.

And while it is hard to see the Democrats winning many House seats in 2014, it is also hard to see them losing many either. After the wipe out of 2010, there is little low-hanging House fruit left for the GOP to swipe. Only nine Democratic House members represent districts that Romney carried in 2012, compared to 17 Republican congressmen in Obama districts.

But the Democrats’ greatest asset may be that they have been here before. They were basically blindsided in 2010. This year they are working to prepare – financially and organizationally – for a year fraught with problems.

Whether they can close the fabled “enthusiasm gap” with Republicans by energizing the party’s broad, but often somnolent, base is the Democrats’ biggest challenge. They did so in 2008 and 2012 and won the White House both times. But they failed to do so in 2010, and suffered greatly.

This time they have two of the nation’s best campaigners to throw into the breach, President Obama and former President Clinton. In a sense, they complement each other: Obama’s appeal is greater in metropolitan areas, with a particular resonance among youth and minorities. Clinton has a special ability, for a national Democrat, to communicate with voters in the largely white small towns of rural America.

Still, even under the best of circumstances, this year is shaping up as a difficult one for the Democrats. History, the map, and polls that may not change that dramatically before November, constitute a tough midterm combination to overcome.

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2014). Political terrain for the 2014 Senate and gubernatorial races.
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