Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise that the Republican establishment would “crush” the Tea Party in 2014 may have proven true for him in his Kentucky primary, but it appears to be less of a sure bet for his friends in Washington.
With key midterm election indicators at historic lows, congressional incumbents may be facing even tougher midterm election battles than previously thought. On Monday, Gallup released a poll showing congressional job approval at 16 percent, which is on track to be the lowest in a midterm election year since Gallup first started measuring it 40 years ago.
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Gallup’s poll makes the case that when Americans disapprove of the work Congress is doing, there tends to be higher turnover in the House. We are already seeing evidence of this—perhaps the most shocking of all was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss last week to tea party challenger Dave Brat. Virtually unknown in both Washington and Virginia, the economics professor ran an effective low-budget grassroots campaign--a strategy that won him 55.5 percent of the vote.
As former Vermont Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean sees it, one of the most important lessons from Cantor’s loss is that anything can happen in this midterm election season. “Even on the morning of the election, not a single major pundit or politician thought the majority leader would lose,” wrote Dean in Monday’s edition of Politico. “Cantor was considered invincible, and Republicans were expected to win big in November.”
“Americans are so fed up with Congress that even the tea party wants to kick it out,” writes Dean. “House leaders have engaged in very little serious work that would benefit the American people, and voters are sick of it.”
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Granted, Cantor’s loss was the first major surprise of the midterm election cycle. But is there something in the water, or is this line of thinking nothing more than the latest democratic fundraising strategy?
Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer thinks this is an ongoing trend. “You’ve watched for years as the opinion of Washington, D.C., has gone down,” he said in an interview. “What happened with Eric Cantor is a subset of America just showing up and saying, ‘All right, we’ll just show you. We are going to start throwing these rascals out and we are going to start today.’…The mood has finally gotten to a point.”
Schweitzer predicts, “There will be an increasing number of people who say, ‘I don’t really have any idea who the guy or gal is that’s running against the incumbent, but I know I’m not voting for the incumbent.’”
Gallup's Editor in Chief, Frank Newport, agrees—for the most part. But he stops short of calling it a trend. “We may be entering some new waters now because we have a sustained period where congressional job approval has hit its lowest marks in history. Voters are scratching their heads more,” said Newport. “That may have been the case with Cantor. It’s possible that they are just tired of Congress, that Cantor represented ‘big Congress’ to them and they were looking for an opportunity to send a message.”
But is Cantor the exception to the rule? “That’s reading the tea leaves and I don’t know,” said Newport. “It’s important not to say that one example sets a trend. We will have to keep watching. I don’t think anyone has enough data at this point to call it a trend.”
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A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, conducted before Cantor’s election upset rocked Washington, says change is few and far between. At the time the article was published, no incumbent candidates—for the Senate or House—had lost a midterm primary race in this cycle. The National Journal makes the case that even in midterm cycles when congressional approval is in the tubes, incumbent turnover holds steady.
“Clearly the significant majority of incumbents get reelected,” admits Newport. “You are talking about variations at the edges.” Newport cautioned against pointing to just one indicator when trying to predict midterm outcomes. “There are many indicators related to seat losses in Congress,” he said, citing both Congress and the President’s approval ratings, along with the overall economic climate.
There is little doubt that the president’s approval rating is a key indicator when it comes to midterm elections. Historically, when presidents are ‘on the outs’ with the American people, their party tends to lose a significant number of seats in Congress. During the month of June, President Obama’s approval rating averaged 44 percent, according to Gallup Daily tracking. That’s the same approval rating he had during the 2010 midterms, when Democrats lost a postwar record of 63 seats.
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The danger zone appears to be when the dial points below 50 percent. In recent midterm years, only two of Obama’s predecessors have had worse job approval ratings--George W. Bush in 2006 and Ronald Reagan in 1982. Gallup reports that in both cases, the President's party gave up more than 20 seats.
But there’s also this reality: Democratic turnout in midterm elections is usually low. When there’s not a presidential candidate on the ballot, non-white and millennial-aged voters tend to stay home. As a result, the midterm electorate is often made up of older, whiter and more Republican-leaning voters. It remains to be seen whether Democrats can inspire their base to make their way to ballot boxes across America. But the seemingly obvious answer of who Republicans will cast their vote for has become increasingly murky.
The third finding in Gallup’s latest poll is often the number one thing that affects how people feel about their president. As Clinton campaign strategist James Carville once so eloquently put it: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
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Overall, Americans’ confidence in the economy is steadily improving—but, ever so slightly. In May, Gallup's U.S. Economic Confidence Index reached its highest monthly reading of 2014, ticking up to -14 from -17 in January.
But whether it’s a sibling who lost their job, or a neighbor who can’t pay their mortgage, many Americans still feel—and see—the lingering aftershocks of the recession. When asked by Gallup the most important issue facing the United States, 44 percent mentioned an economic issue, with 20 percent citing the “state of the economy in general.”
Given the way people feel about Congress and the President, a recovering economy might just be the best thing for incumbents to hope for.
While Cantor’s election upset is not evidence of a widespread revolution against incumbents, it has put the notion that ‘anything can happen in 2014’ on Washington’s radar—and effectively, neutralized the idea that the tea party is a thing of the past.
Of course, the fat lady hasn’t sung. At least, not yet.
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