The Three Hottest Issues Dominating the Midterm Elections
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The Fiscal Times
September 2, 2014

In a new campaign ad last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) claimed credit for lifting the Obama administration’s moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill – a move that she boasts has created jobs for Louisiana residents. 

The embattled Senate Democrat has been harping on her efforts to bolster her state’s oil and gas industry and improve the economic outlook in her bid to fend off an aggressive challenge from Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), according to The Hill.

Related: Money Behind the Midterms—How the Game Has Changed

Earlier this month, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) began airing an ad defending his vote in support of the Affordable Care Act, but without mentioning the unpopular law by name. Noting that his constituents can now obtain medical insurance even with a serious pre-existing condition like cancer, Pryor looks into the camera to say, “No one should be fighting an insurance company while fighting for your life.”

In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall is one of the few endangered Democratic incumbents in the country to stand up for comprehensive immigration reform, including measures to give illegal immigrants and their children a path to a green card or citizenship. In a state with a large and politically active Hispanic population, Udall is trying to put the heat on his GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, and has had to tread cautiously on the issue.

Three Issues That Can Turn the Midterm Tide
As the midterm campaign begins to heat up following Labor Day, three issues are dominating Senate candidates’ stump speeches and ads: The economy and jobs, health care reform and immigration. While the country has been roiled by a steady stream of domestic and international crises, the largely bread-and butter issues of immigration, Obamacare and job creation appear to be dominating the landscape.  

Related: Rubio’s Rightward Drift on Immigration Continues

“This isn’t an election about one particular issue,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report and an expert on Senate races. “Most people, especially incumbents, are presenting [their stands on these issues] in whatever local framework they can.”

In all, 435 House Seats, 36 Senate seats, 36 governorships and scores of referenda will be on the line in the Nov. 4 general election. While all of these elections are important, all eyes will be on the Senate races, which will determine whether the Republicans can regain control of the Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. If they can do that, then the GOP will control both chambers of Congress.

The Republicans need to pick up a minimum of six seats in order to wrest control of the Senate. They have virtually secured pickups in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia, analysts say. That means they need to hang on to contested seats in Georgia and  Kentucky while winning three of the seven other “toss-up” seats now held by Democrats—namely in  Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa,  Louisiana,  Michigan and North Carolina, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report.

Related: Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election

There’s no doubt Obama’s pathetically low job approval rating in the low 40 percent range is hanging over the campaign and posing problems for many Democrats who are being linked to his unpopular policies. Freshman Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, for instance, often strains to disassociate himself from Obama and his party. Practically the only time voters see a picture of Obama in a campaign ad is when a Republican is paying for it, according to Duffy.

Yet only a relative handful of issues – and the way they are presented in costly TV and radio ads being aired in key states - are likely to determine the outcome of the election.

The question of how to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country and the tens of thousands of Central American children who have illegally crossed into this country in the past year has sorely divided the country and set President Obama and congressional Republicans on a collision course this fall over Obama’s threat to prevent massive deportations by executive order. While there are numerous signs of a recovering economy, incumbent lawmakers and their political challengers are under mounting pressure from voters to explain what they intend to do to further expand the job base.

Related: Obamacare Fraud Controls Found Severely Lacking

Obama’s signature health care law, which is providing insurance coverage to an estimated 8 million Americans and has added 7 million more low-income people to the Medicaid rolls, is still in the cross hairs of many Republicans. After a disastrous launch of the on-line insurance program last fall, Republicans boasted that they would ride their call for repealing Obamacare to victory in November. Now that the administration has overcome most of the website’s technical problems and many millions of people are now signed up, the Republican mantra has changed from “repeal” to “fix” Obamacare.  

“Obamacare is baked into the foundation of this election cycle,” said Nicole McCleskey, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies. “People understand what its downsides are in terms of lost coverage, cancelled policies, and increased premiums. They’ve kind of assimilated it into their political understanding.” She added, “Campaigns are all about injecting new information into voters’ awareness to shape opinions.”

McCleskey said that the economy is another core issue. Regardless of the evidence that the economy is on the rebound, McCleskey said, the years of misery following the Great Recession are still very much shaping peoples’ thoughts. “We’ve experienced such a poor economic recovery that it is what people have become accustomed to,” she said. “You can talk about all these economic indicators, but if you go talk to real people, nobody feels any recovery. It’s not penetrating down to a level that people feel it in everyday living.”

She said that the poor recovery has cemented the impression in many voters’ minds that there is a “fundamental lack of leadership” in the U.S.

Related: Why We’re So Down in the Dumps About the Economy 

While acknowledging that the immigration issue is a motivator for some voters on the right and the left, she said, “Right now I think Republicans have the upper hand on immigration. The reason being that I think what people see is a lack of leadership on Obama’s part and a promise to address the issue that has fallen by the wayside since his election. The crisis on the border is exacerbated by what people believe is a total lack of respect for leadership in our country. The feeling that laws can be broken without consequence.”

For this reason, in fact, the White House last week appeared to begin dialing back the rhetoric over immigration. The President had vowed to take unilateral action by the end of summer. However, Democrats facing tough reelection battles don’t want the president to hand Republicans another issue to help drive voter turnout. The result is that both President Obama himself and his aides last week began discussing action on immigration as something that might not happen soon. 

Regardless of whether the President acts or not, it’s sure to be an issue many Republican candidates use to rile up their base over the next two months.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.