8 questions — and answers — about the midterm elections


If Republicans win back the Senate, it could have a profound effect on President Obama’s final years in office. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
September 1

The House is in GOP hands, and no one thinks the November midterm elections will change that. Republicans could lose governorships in presidential battleground states, and that is hardly insignificant. But House and gubernatorial contests pale in comparison to the question of who will control the Senate next January.

If Republicans win back the chamber, it could have a profound effect on President Obama’s final years in office and on the future of the Republican Party.

No single issue dominates this election, and both the president and his Republican adversaries in Congress will start the final nine weeks of the campaign season with low ratings. There is much that points to GOP gains, but this is not 2010 all over again.

For this article, dozens of political strategists have offered their assessments of the current state of play in the key races and on other questions about the political environment now and potentially in the future.

1. Will Republicans take over the Senate?

The Republicans have the advantage, if only because they have more than enough opportunities to pick up the net of six seats they need to get to 51. The map and the national mood favor Republicans, and GOP strategists are cautiously bullish. Embattled Democratic candidates in several critically important states are running good races. Democratic strategists would like to think that enough of them could hold on to keep the Senate at no worse than 50-50.

Traditional handicappers such as the Rothenberg Political Report, the Cook Political Report and Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball show too many races still too close to call to suggest the outcome is preordained. As of this weekend, The Washington Post’s Election Lab, which uses modeling, gave Republicans slightly better than a 50 percent chance of winning the majority. The New York Times Upshot model on Sunday put it at 65 percent, which is still short of a guarantee. The last prediction from Nate Silver’s 538 site was a month ago, and it said Republicans would pick up six seats.

Let’s break this down further. Everyone gives Republicans three pickups in states held by Democrats where the incumbent is not seeking reelection: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. After that, they need three more victories, with seven or eight good possibilities. Four of those seven are in southern or red states with Democratic incumbents: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Add in four other states that Obama won twice that weren’t supposed to be competitive but appear to be today: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire. Democrats could scramble this favorable GOP math by winning either Georgia or Kentucky.

2. Whose approval ratings matter more, Obama’s or congressional Republicans’?

Midterm elections almost always are a referendum on the president’s party, and this fall President Obama will be a drag on Democratic candidates. His national numbers are weak and haven’t improved during the course of this year. As of Friday, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed his approval rating at 42 percent and his disapproval at 52 percent. In many of the states with competitive races, his numbers are worse — and not just in red states. Criticism of his handling of foreign policy only adds to his problems.

Congressional Republicans have even worse numbers, a reflection of how Americans see Congress generally, and House Republicans in particular. In some states, Republican governance has become a central dynamic. That is especially true in North Carolina in the Senate race that pits Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan against Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis in a state where the GOP-controlled legislature is a point of controversy.

Escaping the burden of Obama’s standing will be difficult. “The Republicans have a bad brand,” Democratic strategist Steve Murphy said, “but the race is about the president.”

3. Is the election really all about turnout and who has the upper hand?

There are several ways to think about this. Persuasion — urging undecided people to vote for your candidate — and turning out loyalists are always the keys to winning an election. This year is no exception, although increasingly both Democrats and Republicans have concentrated on getting their most loyal supporters to the polls while seeming to worry a little less about trying to persuade fence-sitters to show up.

Then there is the Democrats’ midterm deficit. Democrats generally have a more difficult time getting their voters to turn out for midterm elections. Many Democrats regularly vote in presidential races but stay home during midterms. The electorate in midterm years is generally older and sometimes, depending on the state, whiter than in presidential-election years. Animosity toward Obama and his policies also makes Republicans more eager to vote. All of that gives the GOP an advantage.

Another way to look at this is to ask which side has better techniques for getting the most voters to the polls. Obama’s 2012 campaign did a better job at this than Mitt Romney’s team. This year, Democrats, through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have pledged to invest unprecedented sums of money in sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts. But the fruits of those efforts won’t be known until Election Day.

4. If I watch only a few Senate races, which ones should they be?

Several dozen strategists weighed in on this question and there was widespread agreement on two of the states that bear watching most closely.

One is North Carolina, a state Obama won in 2008 and lost in 2012, and where outside groups already have spent heavily on a contest that many say could determine whether the Senate remains in Democratic hands.

The other is Iowa. Democrats initially were very confident that they could hold the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, but the race has become one of the most competitive in the country because of stumbles by Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and the enthusiasm among Republican circles for their candidate, state Sen. Joni Ernst. Iowa offers a possible insurance policy for Republicans if they falter in some of the red states. For Democrats, it’s a possible firewall.

A third state cited by many is Colorado, a demographically changing state where Democrats have had recent successes but now face a highly competitive Senate contest. A GOP victory there would make it much more likely that Republicans win control of the chamber.

Louisiana and Arkansas will always bear watching because Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor are trying to hold back the tide in their red states. And it’s possible that control of the Senate won’t be known until December if Landrieu is forced into a runoff.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is trying to overcome his unpopularity at home and a challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the hope of becoming majority leader in January. The race is expected to be the most expensive of the year.

5. Are the super PACs and ‘dark money’ groups wasting their money?

Outside groups have swamped the system with spending this year, with an estimated $200 million dispensed. This is money spent by super PACs and by “dark money” groups (so named because they are not required to report where they get their money).

These groups carry much of the load in attacking the opposition, hypothetically leaving candidates more latitude to stay positive. (Not all of them will.) But these groups are controversial, both with the public and with some strategists working directly for individual candidates who claim they muddy rather than clarify the message.

Outside money has had its greatest impact on primary campaigns. Spending on behalf of Tillis in North Carolina helped him overcome tea party opposition to win the GOP nomination. Outside spending by Republican establishment groups helped Sen. Thad Cochran defeat his tea party challenger in the Mississippi GOP primary.

Whether all this outside money will truly affect the outcome of races in November is more difficult to answer. Such groups spent enormous sums on the presidential and Senate campaigns in 2012, particularly on the Republican side, but had little to show for it. Neither side feels as though it can afford not to have spending by these groups, even if it thinks all that money cancels itself out.

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist, said that the huge volume of advertising by outside groups does matter, but that what the candidates’ campaigns do is more important. “I think while voters are suspicious of all political ads, they are particularly suspicious of third-party ads,” he said.

6. Would a Republican Senate intensify partisan warfare or produce more cooperation?

Mitch McConnell may have tipped his hand at a private meeting held by the wealthy Koch brothers this summer. A tape of his comments, first published in The Nation magazine, had him vowing to go after Obama and the Democrats “on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board.” He said the Senate would not be debating these “gosh darn proposals,” such as raising the minimum wage.

Even before the comments surfaced, many of the people in the middle of these campaigns were saying that partisan conflict would intensify, or at least be perpetuated, if Republicans take control of the Senate. “The partisan warfare is going to continue into the 2016 election no matter the outcome on November 4,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. Democratic strategist Kiki McLean said, “The party assuming power will have a sense of urgency and a desire to pursue a pent-up agenda.”

One Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed a contrary view: “I think they will be the dog who caught the bus. They will have responsibility for actually offering an agenda.” Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, agreed, noting that the GOP “will need a governing agenda to grow” and put itself in a better position to compete for the White House in 2016.

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, suggested that a GOP-controlled Congress would be both partisan and productive, with bipartisan support. “Republicans would have the ability to put the Obama administration in an oversight headlock,” he said. “But they would also be able to produce more bipartisan victories by sending more legislative items to the White House for signature, such as the Keystone pipeline.”

7. Which contests this fall could have implications for 2016, and why?

Certainly the issue of control of Congress has significant implications for both parties as the country heads toward 2016. But contests in particular states also could be telling.

Two could affect the shape of the Republican field in 2016. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is in a competitive reelection campaign against Democrat Mary Burke. He won’t be a viable presidential candidate in 2016 if he is a former governor. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R) is suddenly in a cakewalk toward reelection, thanks to the implosion of his opponent, Democrat Ed FitzGerald. Might Kasich be tempted to run for president again after a handsome victory in such a key state?

Senate contests in other states — Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina — also might offer clues to 2016. To win the White House, Republicans will need to expand the playing field and demonstrate an ability to win in places Democrats have been winning recently. If they cannot win competitive Senate races in such states in a midterm election when the environment favors them, it will be viewed as further evidence of an Electoral College advantage for the Democrats in 2016. Even a narrow defeat in North Carolina would be a sign that Democrats still hold an edge in the battle over turnout.

8. What could scramble things most in the final weeks before the elections?

Neither events nor millions of dollars have moved some of the most competitive races this year. What might change that? Possibilities would be a dramatic escalation of military action by the United States against Islamic State forces or the deepening crisis of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Obama has ruled out U.S. military action in Ukraine and last week sought to slow down talk of military strikes in Syria.

Executive action by the president to give some kind of legal status to millions of illegal immigrants would inject that volatile issue into the final weeks of the campaign. Democrats worry about what that would mean to their candidates in red states; Republicans are concerned about a possible overreaction by their most conservative wing that would create a backlash against them, particularly one strong enough to produce another government shutdown that did considerable damage to the GOP brand last year.

Beyond that, strategists on both sides worry about the impact of a gaffe, a disastrous debate performance or a revelation like the plagiarism charge that caused Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) to quit the race.

Absent any of that, the candidates and their campaigns face a grinding nine weeks until Nov. 4

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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