Limits of the Republican Senate Wave

It’s understandable that Republicans are bullish about their chances of regaining control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. They got incredibly lucky with the Senate landscape (just as they will be incredibly unlucky in 2016). They have a built-in turnout advantage in midterms. There’s the “six-year curse” factor, if you believe in such things. And there’s nothing about the general environment (especially the economy) that would indicate a large upward surge in the president’s approval ratings between now and November.

But some GOPers (and even a few “neutral” observers) are confusing these favorable conditions with some sort of massive national repudiation of Obama (or more particularly of Obamacare) that will not only croak vulnerable red-state Democratic Senators and protect vulnerable GOPers in KY and GA, but will sweep through the nation, convulsing Michigan! Oregon! Colorado! Iowa! New Hampshire! and even Minnesota! and Virginia!

Aside from the routine GOP misunderstanding of public opinion on Obamacare (they systematically ignore liberal unhappiness with the private-insurance features of the law, which boosts “negative” assessments that won’t translate into Republican votes, and also confuse disapproval with willingness to repeal), they seem to assume voters are as obsessed with the law as they are, which is not reflected in any polls that I’ve seen. Certainly Democratic missteps in some marginal states and heavily financed GOP campaigns could flip a seat or two now considered in the Democratic column, but the idea of a massive “wave” producing net gains of 10 or 12 or 14 seats are presently a fantasy.

To site a couple of examples: in Iowa, Bruce Braley may not be a slam dunk for Tom Harkin’s seat. But before Republicans even think about winning there, they will have to navigate a messy primary that is quite likely to lead to an even messier nominating convention, possibly producing an extremist nominee–all while Braley keeps raising money and organizing (with the help, no doubt, of the soon-to-be-emerging Clinton campaign). And Virginia? A new Roanoke College poll showed Mark Warner slipping past Ed Gillespie by a frighteningly narrow 27 point margin.

No matter how it all turns out, Republicans may ultimately pay a price for imagining that the gains they will likely make in the Senate are attributable to some national sea-change or to the power of the GOP message of Obamacare! and Benghazi! and IRS! That assumption could well produce some nasty surprises two years down the road, if not earlier.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.