Eyes on the Next Prize

One reason for the apparent willingness of so many Republicans to focus on who gets blame or credit for a fiscal “fix” rather than the nature of the “fix” itself is the eternal capacity of pols to focus on the next election cycle. Right now that may look like a wonderfully comfortable oasis compared to the realities of, you know, actually governing.

And as Charlie Cook succinctly explains today, 2014 remains, according to history and the likely landscape, a year that may wipe away many an elephant tear:

In the six “six-year itch” elections since World War II, the party in the White House has averaged a 29-seat loss in the House and a six-seat (actually 5.6) loss in the Senate. In 1958 (Eisenhower), 1966 (Kennedy/Johnson), and 1974 (Nixon/Ford), the party in the White House lost 48 seats; in 2006 (George W. Bush), the most recent such election, the party in power lost 30 seats. In 1986 (Reagan), the loss was just five seats, while in 1998, under Clinton, the “in” party actually gained five House seats—no doubt a backlash to Republican efforts to remove the president from office. In that same election, the Senate was a wash, and in the other five, losses ranged from four seats in 1966 and 1974 to six seats in 2006 and 12 seats in 1958.

Obviously, past results are not a guarantee of future performance: Democrats are not going into the 2014 House midterms in an overexposed position, because they took such a beating in 2010, losing 63 seats and regaining only eight seats this year. It’s hard to see how Democrats could lose the 48 seats that the “in” party lost in 1958, 1966, and 1974. Also, with the way the current lines are drawn to form so many one-party districts, it would take a heckuva wave election to move a lot of seats in either direction. The House appears to have reached a kind of a partisan equilibrium; the GOP has a good chance of holding onto control for the rest of the decade, barring self-destruction resulting in a tidal wave.

I’ll interject to observe that “self-destruction” is an option always on the table with today’s Republicans, but Cook’s general point is entirely valid, given the GOP’s ability in 2012 to hold onto a robust majority of House seats despite losing the national popular vote.

But in the Senate, with only one Republican-held seat up (Susan Collins in Maine) in a state not carried by Mitt Romney by at least 8 points, the GOP seems to have little exposure. At the same time, Democrats have four seats in states that Romney carried by 15 or more points (Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, and Tim Johnson in South Dakota), with two more in states that Romney won by 14 points (Max Baucus in Montana and Mark Begich in Alaska) and two others in swing states (Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Warner in Virginia).

As I briefly noted in a Lunch Buffet item yesterday, Democrats could be in a position to achieve a Senate super-majority in 2016 if they manage to over-perform in 2014 as they did in 2012. But Cook’s breakdown shows how difficult that will be.

And the factor Cook doesn’t mention is the one that should most trouble Democrats: the growing disparity between the partisan leanings of the presidential and midterm electorates, attributable to the unusually high correlation of party preferences to age and ethnic divisions. Just as odds of Republican gains in 2010 went up the moment after Barack Obama’s election, so too have the odds of GOP gains in 2014, regardless of what happens in Washington between now and then. So it’s no wonder Republicans want to get there fast.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.