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The Morning Plum: Improving economy could help Dems hold Senate

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A new Quinnipiac poll finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 73-22 — thinks we should be placing a higher priority on the economy and unemployment than on the “scandals” gripping Washington. That includes 72 percent of independents, who are critical in midterm elections. At the same time, a variety of indicators, from rising home prices to buoyed consumer confidence to falling gas prices, suggest that the economy is improving at a stronger clip than previously anticipated.

If the recovery is strong next year, it could help Dems hold the Senate. That’s because, with Democrats fighting on defense across the board, Dem control of the Senate hinges on whether a half dozen incumbents can hang on. And an improving economy can help incumbents. As Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cool Political Report explains (sub. required):

Good economic times are good for incumbents. After all, voters are more apt to look for change in tough times than they are in good ones. Significant economic anxiety contributed to the “wave” elections of 2008 and 2010. In 2012, the economy improved just enough to help President Obama win re-election.
This year, Americans’ confidence in the economy is as strong as it’s been in years. If that continues, it would probably mean a status quo cycle; which is the best that Democrats could hope for.
Democrats are the underdogs in 2014. They are defending seven Senate seats in deep red states, while Republicans have no vulnerable seats to protect…The best case scenario for Democrats is 2014 to limit their losses. An improving economic outlook could help them do that. The economic environment is much improved from where it was right before Election Day 2010. And, it’s even a bit better than it was in the fall of 2012.

All of this turns on a basic unknown: Will the political environment next year be defined by turbulence associated with the Affordable Care Act and ongoing “scandals,” or by GOP ideological overreach amid an improving economy?

Republicans are heading into 2014 with a strategy that’s focused heavily on two things: On making Obamacare implementation problems a big liability for Democrats; and tying the ongoing “scandals” in Washington to Obama. These two are being lumped into a larger narrative about Obama/Dem Big Government Overreach, which is how Republicans hope to “nationalize” the 2014 elections — to turn them into a referendum on the President and his party, and make voters crave a change.

Public perceptions of the economy do seem to be improving. While the Quinnipiac poll shows persistent pessimism about it, other surveys have shown clear signs of rising optimism.

What is certain is that the economy continues to be a top priority of voters — far more important than any Beltway “scandal” narratives. A number of indicators do point to a recovery gaining steam, and if the economy continues to improve next year, it could make it less likely that these races are “nationalized” and a referendum on the President and national Democrats. Dem strategists hope that if that happens, the races will be more about the candidates themselves (as is often disproportionately the case in Senate contests) and about voters’ sense of which candidate is more in sync with middle class values and priorities.

To be sure, as Walter notes, there is always the possibility that Obamacare problems could color views of the economy. But even if that happens, Dems will argue that the Republicans only want to capitalize politically on Obamacare’s flaws, without offering any meaningful health care reforms of their own. They will argue that this, combined with the GOP obsession with Beltway “scandals,” shows that Republicans aren’t interested in solving the problems facing the middle class.

In any case, predictions of implementation problems — and the political liabilities that will accompany them — could prove overwrought. In which case the GOP’s obsession with exaggerated Obamacare problems and fake scandals will be unlikely to outweigh the improving economy as a factor in determining the political environment next year, and could even prove a liability.

* PUBLIC HAS MIXED VIEWS ON BEHGNAZI STORY: The aforementioned Quinnipiac poll finds that a plurality, 43 percent, believes Republicans are “playing politics” on the Benghazi scandal, while only 32 percent believe they are raising “legitimate concerns.” However, a plurality of 46 percent also believes the administration “deliberately misled” the American people about the Benghazi events (a finding that is confirmed by some recent polls but contradicted by others, particularly ones that ask directly about Obama himself).

* PUBLIC HAS MIXED VIEWS ON IRS SCANDAL: The Quinnipiac poll also finds that an overwhelming 76 percent say a special prosecutor should be appointed to look into the allegations involving the IRS. And yet, only 35 percent believe that the decision to target conservative groups was made by the Obama administration, as opposed to by “civil servants.”

* OBAMA APPROVAL SHOWS ECONOMY OUTWEIGHING SCANDALS: With Obama’s approval spread in Gallup at 50-43, which is better than before the scandals, Jonathan Easley has an interesting look at how the numbers suggest that rising economic optimism is outweighing scandals when it comes to explaining Obama’s ability to hold steady through the turbulence.

* OBAMA TO MOUNT MAJOR PUSH TO WIN BACK HOUSE: Last might, Obama told major donors:

“We’ve got a great chance of taking back the House.  And I’m going to be working tirelessly wherever I get the opportunity to make the case to the American people that our ideas are the right ones.”

The odds that Dems will take back the House are very long, but it’s welcome to see that Obama is already signaling that he will work very hard to try to make it happen.

* BLOOMBERG RECEIVED LETTERS LACED WITH RICIN: The Wall Street Journal reports that ricin-laced letters sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a major gun reform proponent, “made references to the debate on gun laws.” That’s too vague to conclude anything from — we need to know more — but at any rate, Bloomberg is responding to it by saying: “There’s 12,000 people that are going to get killed this year with guns. We’re not going to walk away from those efforts.”

* GOP MAKEOVER NOT GOING TOO WELL: Josh Kraushaar digs deep into recruitment problems gripping the GOP in Virginia and Colorado to illustrate the larger difficulties the party faces.

As Kraushaar illustrates, the GOP isn’t rethinking its positions on issues in ways that could appeal to the voter groups that are key in these states and nationally: “the rising American electorate — Hispanics, single women, and young, college-educated voters — that are necessary for Republicans to win over for their long-term health.”

* BACHMANN AND THE FUTURE OF THE TEA PARTY: Paul Kane has a good piece tracing Michele Bachmann’s rise and fall, and illustrating how that tracks very neatly with the trajectory of the Tea Party’s fortunes. This is fun:

The biggest stars now reside in the Senate, where two first-termers, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have electrified the movement in recent months and established themselves as the leading disruptive forces to Democratic Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s bid to move President Obama’s second-term agenda. Still, although the two senators are capable of blocking or slowing the Democratic agenda, they are in no position to implement or advance their conservative philosophy legislatively.

Though I’d add that Cruz and Paul have a surprisingly strong grip on the Senate GOP overall; just witness Mitch McConnell’s support for their deeply demented effort to block budget talks over the debt ceiling.

* AND WHO WILL SUCCEED BACHMANN AS HOUSE TEA PARTY LEADER? Meet the four leading contenders in the House who are most likely to inherit her mantle. Key takeaway: Bachmann may be leaving, but among Republicans, Bachmannia remains alive and well.

What else?