Recently a Democratic congressional leader cheerfully teased me about my decidedly pessimistic view of his party’s chances of regaining a House majority, saying, “Why can’t you just say, ‘Democrats can’t win a majority in the House, but Republicans can lose one.’ ”
From a mathematical standpoint, this Democrat’s formulation doesn’t change the odds, but the point was well taken. Democrats can do everything right during this 2014 election cycle, but they still don’t have much of a chance of capturing a majority due to the congressional district boundaries and recent voting patterns in Southern and border states in rural and small-town-dominated districts. However, if Republicans engage in enough self-destructive behavior of the type we’ve seen the past couple of years, voters might just reach a breaking point. Some in the Republican Party seem intent on seeing how far they can go in alienating as many female, young, minority, and self-described moderate voting blocs as possible, despite frequent warnings from party leaders and strategists to avoid that.
We in Washington are, as always, far more preoccupied with events and dynamics inside the proverbial Beltway, but the GOP must also be mindful of actions elsewhere, in state capitals for example, that can also affect their party’s brand in those states and across the country. Although the focus in recent weeks has been on successful pro-life efforts in the Texas Legislature, we are seeing many efforts in legislatures, particularly in the South, that are aimed at placating the base and conservative activists. News is not confined within states or congressional districts. High-profile actions in one state can be heard a thousand miles away and can jeopardize the party’s standing nationally among all of those who don’t call themselves conservative. Keep in mind that while conservatives outnumber liberals by about 10 points nationally—35 percent to 25 percent in last year’s exit polls—40 percent of voters call themselves moderates. Thus two out of three voters do not identify as conservative.
The biggest political development of the weekend was former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s decision not to run for the open Senate seat in Montana, where Democrat Max Baucus is retiring. Schweitzer was considered a strong favorite to win and hold the seat in this decidedly red state. A Democratic victory in Montana would now be counted as a real upset. No doubt Democrats will find a candidate, but none will be as strong as Schweitzer.
Even with this important development, the effective six-seat net gain that Republicans need is still less than a 50-50 proposition. Yet it does improve the GOP’s chances of gaining a majority. (Technically, it is a five-seat gain, but the New Jersey seat, formerly held by the late Democrat Frank Lautenberg and now occupied by Jeffrey Chiesa, is a cinch to revert back to Democrats after this October’s special election.)
The most plausible GOP path to a majority would be Republicans picking up Democratic open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia; then unseating incumbents Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana; while holding onto Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky and an open seat in Georgia. If either McConnell or the Georgia seat were to fall to Democrats, Republicans would then need to offset the loss with another victory, with Democrat Kay Hagan in North Carolina probably the most realistic victim, although Republicans are certainly eyeing an open Democratic seat in Michigan and would love to take out Al Franken in Minnesota. Those latter two, at this stage, seem quite unlikely.
But all of these things are predicated on two assumptions. First, that Republicans are able to recruit and push through candidates who can actually win general elections in increasingly conservative primaries. Second, that the GOP can trim the Democratic advantages among those female, minority, young, and moderate voting blocs that have been trending Democratic. The potentially offsetting factor is that late, midterm electorates generally have been more Republican than presidential years (2006 being the notable exception, but there was a lot of push back from the Iraq war that year). However, that alone might not be enough to help Republicans reverse the pattern that has seen them lose five out of seven and eight out of 10 Cook Political Report-rated Toss Up Senate races in 2010 and 2012, respectively.