Republicans seize edge in the fight for the Senate majority

The Senate playing field has shifted in Republicans' favor over the last several weeks thanks to recruiting successes in Colorado and New Hampshire, as well as a national political environment that looks increasingly treacherous for Democrats.


Elephants. (EPA/DAI KUROKAWA)

That shifting has led to rising confidence among Republican strategists about the party's chances of retaking the six seats the party needs to regain the Senate majority in 2014.

“After the last two Senate elections, this will be the year Charlie Brown finally gets to kick the football," predicted prominent Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Republicans have more opportunities than they have in the past, the terrible candidates are not catching the better general-election candidates napping like they did in cases like Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock, and the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] is doing a good job ensuring candidates have a stronger digital presence than GOPers have had in the past.  And yes, in this analogy, Harry Reid is Lucy, crabby as ever.”

Even Democrats have begun to acknowledge the problems in the fight for the Senate -- albeit privately.

"There is no doubt that the Senate outlook has deteriorated significantly in the past six weeks," admitted a prominent Democratic strategist. "Between the map and the [Affordable Care Act's] unpopularity in the states on the map, it has gone from being a jump ball to advantage Republicans."

Viewed broadly, there are now 11 Democratic-held seats in varying levels of peril -- and 12 if you consider the Virginia seat held by Sen. Mark Warner. (Republicans argue Democratic-held seats in Oregon and Minnesota belong on that list as well.) That is a significant expansion of the playing field from even a few months ago -- thanks largely to decisions by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and former U.S. senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to run in Colorado and New Hampshire, respectively. In each case, races that were not considered competitive immediately became so thanks to Republican recruits. (Something similar happened in Virginia, where former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie's candidacy gives Republicans a credible and serious candidate -- although, unlike in New Hampshire and Colorado, there is almost no sign that Warner is in any trouble as of yet.)

That broader playing field matters for two big reasons. First, it gives Republicans a wider margin for error. They need a six-seat pickup and you'd much rather try to win six out of 12 than six out of six or seven. (Trying to run that sort of inside straight to the majority is where Republicans found themselves in 2012 -- and they wound up losing rather than gaining seats.) That means that even if Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) wins in New Hampshire -- and most polling shows her with a comfortable edge over Brown -- Republicans have lots of other pathways to the majority. Second, a broader playing field -- particularly in expensive media markets like Boston's, which covers the southern half of New Hampshire, Denver and, possibly, Washington, D.C. -- means that Senate Democrats and their corresponding outside groups will have their dollars stretched as they attempt to retain the majority. Remember that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's prime mission is to reelect its incumbents; so, if the committee has to spend money in New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado, that means less money for, say, the open seat in Georgia or Alison Lundergan Grimes's challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

And, it's not simply that there are more Republican opportunities on the board. It's that a closer look at the 11/12 competitive seats suggests that where and how the races are playing out makes the GOP's hand even stronger. In three states -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- independent handicappers like Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg rate Republicans as favorites to take over. If you accept that premise -- and we do, although Montana has the potential to be more competitive than the other two -- that means Republicans must win three out the following eight states to win back the majority: Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Of those eight states, Mitt Romney carried four of them -- Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina -- in his unsuccessful bid for president in 2012. He won 45 percent in Michigan in 2012 and 46  percent in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. In short, none of this octet of states are solidly Democratic. And, if Republicans were only to win the states that Romney carried in 2012 -- a reasonable prospect given the national political environment (more on that below) -- they will be in the majority come 2015.   

Step back from that granular look at the states and you see a national picture dominated, at the moment, by two things: The unpopularity of President Obama and the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act.

The Real Clear Politics polling average puts Obama's job approval at 42.9 percent, a dangerously low spot for his party if history is any guide. Ben Highton, writing on the indispensable Monkey Cage blog, notes that:

Presidential approval is strongly correlated with midterm congressional election outcomes. Gallup has polled Americans on presidential approval during every midterm election cycle since 1954. Across the 16 midterm election cycles from 1954 through 2012, the average level of presidential approval during the first quarter (January to March) of the election year is about 58 percent.  Over the available Gallup presidential approval polls for the first quarter of this year, Obama’s approval is significantly below the average, about 42 percent, worse than every other year except 2006 and 1974.

Here's that data in chart form.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 12.35.16 PM

Obama's unpopularity is matched by the continued unpopularity of his signature health-care law. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll, just 35 percent of those surveyed said the Affordable Care Act was a good idea, while 49 percent said it was a bad one. Dig deeper and the Democrats' political problem with the law becomes clearer. Twenty-six percent of people felt strongly that Obamacare was a good law, while 42 percent felt strongly that it was not.

And, it's not just polling data where Democrats' problems are becoming apparent. In the House special election in Florida's 13th District last Tuesday, Republican candidate David Jolly -- and a panoply of outside groups that came in to support him --  ran on a message focused relentlessly on the Affordable Care Act.

Jolly's victory over Democrat Alex Sink in a district that Obama won twice and that Sink herself carried when she was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2010 has made Democrats even more skittish about the political peril present for them in the midterms, and increased Republicans' confidence about their chances of solidifying their House majority and retaking the Senate.

Add it all up and you have a shift in the battle for the Senate majority. What began as a toss-up has now tilted in favor of Republicans taking the Senate majority this November.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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