Reasonable Expectations For the Midterms

It’ll be written off by Republicans as pre-spin, and mocked as a sign of liberal “retreat,” but at TNR this morning Brian Beutler pulls together a number of data points that a lot of us have been making for months and even years about the nature of the 2014 Senate landscape:

In 2012, Obama lost Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina by 13, 24, 17, and 3 points respectively. Right now in the states’ Senate races, also respectively, polling aggregators show Mark Begich trailing challenger Dan Sullivan by one to four points; Mark Pryor trailing challenger Tom Cotton by four to eight points; Mary Landrieu trailing Bill Cassidy by four to seven points; and Kay Hagan beating Thom Tillis by one to three points.

These Democrats are all outperforming Obama by significant margins, in states where Republicans have natural advantages, and in a year in which those advantages should magnify Democratic weaknesses.

The counterpoints to this observation can be found in Colorado, Iowa, and (to a lesser extent) New Hampshire. Obama won those states in 2012 by four, six, and six points respectively. Right now, also respectively, Mark Udall is trailing challenger Cory Gardner by about two points; Bruce Braley (running to replace retiring Tom Harkin) is trailing Joni Ernst by one to two points; and Jeanne Shaheen is leading Scott Brown by only one to two points.

The conservative narrative of a nationwide Republican wave is incubating in these states, where Democrats are underperforming Obama. It must therefore be true that allegiance to Obama is a decisive factor everywhere.

But that narrative cannot account for the GOP’s remarkable underperformance in Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky. Mitt Romney won those states by eight points, 22 points, and 23 points respectively. Right now, also respectively, Republican David Perdue is leading Democrat Michelle Nunn by two to six points; GOP incumbent Pat Roberts is running behind Independent Greg Orman by about a point; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by three to five points. Grimes is outperforming McConnell’s 2008 challenger Bruce Lunsford, who lost by six points in a Democratic wave year. Kraushaar attributes this better-than-the-fundamentals resilience to “her attempts to appease both the party base and more-conservative voters in her state,” which have been “painfully awkward.”

If I had to, I’d put money on Democrats losing all three. But you have to be really invested in a certain conception of politics to explain races that close in states that red as evidence of a national anti-Obama wave. Or to attribute their losses to insufficient Obama bashing.

The minute this election is over, of course, even if it produces a result that Republicans hail as a world-historical event signalling the final destruction of liberalism at the righteous hand of Real Americans everywhere, we’ll enter a cycle in which Democrats have as strong an advantage in Senate races as Republicans have right now. In place of Democrats having to defend 21 of 36 seats, Republicans will have to defend 24 of 34 seats. More importantly, instead of Democratic seats being up in seven states carried by a losing Republican presidential nominee, we’ll have Republican seats being up in seven states carried by a winning Democratic presidential nominee. And the midterm turnout dynamics that not only skew the electorate towards older and whiter voters but ensure that even among young folk the more conservative voters are the ones most likely to show up will almost certainly be reversed.

When all that begins to manifest itself in hard data showing Democrats doing well, will it mean the nation has suddenly reversed itself and is joyfully marching towards a future of single payer health care and robust action on climate change? No, not necessarily. Electoral landscapes matter a great deal, particularly when they are as loaded as the Senate landscape is this year.

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.