Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election
Policy + Politics

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


These are glum times for Democrats in their struggle to retain control of the Senate. 

The race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has gone from “leaning Democratic” to a “toss-up,” as Republican State Senator Joni Ernst continues to surge in popularity.  

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Meanwhile, recently appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana has been hit with plagiarism charges that may cost his party a seat that had been held by Democrat Max Baucus for more than three decades. And in South Dakota, the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson appears to be within easy grasp of Republicans. 

Republicans began the year well positioned to pick up at least the six seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, thanks to historical trends in mid-term elections that favor the party out of power and a political map almost tailor made for the GOP this year. On top of that, Democrats feared being dragged down by President Obama’s near-historic lows in popularity. 

But not so fast.

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A new “Crystal Ball” analysis by University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato cautions that even while Republicans potentially could pick up between four and eight Senate seats this fall, the air is going out of the Republican balloon – making it highly unlikely we’ll see another “wave” or landslide election as in 2010, when Republicans regained control of the House. 

On the surface, at least, Republicans this year are benefiting from one of the best Senate election maps imaginable: While many of the 21 Democratic seats up for reelection are in red or purple states, Sabato noted, the 15 Republican-held Senate seats at stake this fall are in solid red states and should be easily retained. 

Yet the campaign isn’t going precisely the way GOP strategists had hoped with little more than three months before the election. Despite their advantages, it’s possible, if not probable, that the Republicans could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before it’s all over. The reasons are three-fold, according to Sabato and co-authors Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley: 

  • While Obama’s popularity is far from impressive, his job approval ratings appear to have stabilized in the low to mid 40s. That is not as grim a showing as former Republican President George W. Bush’s job approval rating in 2006. Only about 37 percent of voters approved of Bush’s performance this time eight years ago. That fall, the Democrats swept to majorities in the House and Senate and picked up a majority of the governorships on the line.

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  • Several of the most vulnerable Democratic senators seeking reelection this year “are proving more durable than expected,” fending off challenges or at least holding their own so far. They include Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who is running a highly effective campaign while his  Republican challengers are trapped in a prolonged primary race, and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who “has taken a small lead” over her GOP challenger, State House Speaker Thom Tillis, according to Sabato and his co-authors.

  • Democrats are doing surprisingly well overall in the generic ballot in which voters express their preference for the party  that should have control of Congress. Four years ago, the GOP at this point in the campaign had taken a three percentage point lead in the generic ballot surveys and went on to substantially build on that advantage. But currently, Democrats hold a tiny one-point advantage in the generic polling.

The biggest recent changes in the complexity of the Senate contests have occurred in Iowa and Montana. 

Ernst, the self-described former “pig castrating” farmer, continues to perform well in the battle to succeed Harkin, the Senate’s long-time preeminent liberal Democrat. Polling averages now show that she is virtually in a tie with Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee, after trailing early on. 

Meanwhile, Democrat John Walsh, appointed by Montana’s governor five months ago to fill a Senate vacancy created after Baucus accepted an appointment as ambassador to China, is reeling from a New York Times report Wednesday that he plagiarized much of his final thesis in 2007 at the U.S. Army War College. Walsh, a decorated veteran of the Iraq war and former adjutant general of his state’s National Guard, was thought to have a lock on the seat given his military service. But even before this disclosure, Rep. Steve Daines (R) had “established a clear lead,” said Sabato and his colleagues.  

Also, former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds (R) is the frontrunner to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Democrats had been counting on former Republican senator Larry Pressler to drain some support from Rounds by running as an independent, Roll Call reported. But instead, Pressler is splintering the Democratic field by “veering to the left” on some positions, Ben Nesselhuf, former South Dakota Democratic Party chair, told Roll Call.  

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Despite these Democratic setbacks, this year’s campaign contrasts sharply with the 2010 mid-term election, when “all of the energy was on the Republican side,” wrote Sabato and his associates.

“Let’s stipulate that a wave can develop late in the season,” they said. If that happens, the wave “will be colored red and the Senate will surely go Republican.”

Even without a landslide election, there’s a decent chance the Republicans will end up with the six net seats they need to control the Senate.

However, “if there is political energy out there in the 2014 electorate to match either 2006 or 2010, it has escaped our attention,” they wrote. “Obama and the congressional Democrats are undeniably unpopular, yet congressional Republicans have even lower ratings.”

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