Republicans' bullish senate prospects threaten Obama's legacy
Obama’s presidency may as well have eight months left. Now even Nate Silver, former New York Times statistics whiz, is predicting that Republicans are more likely than not to win control of the Senate in 2014.
If that happens, President Obama’s last two years will be a brutal struggle against Congress with little to show for the first six years of his presidency but a stimulus of questionable efficacy and a healthcare act that's hurt more people than it's helped.
Let’s take a look at the races in 2014. One must remember that Senate seats go up for election every six years, which means that the Senators up for re-election in this cycle are the same ones who won in 2008, a wave election year for Democrats. As a result, Democrats are defending 21 seats and Republicans are defending only 15. In a Senate where Democrats control 55 total seats and Republicans control the remaining 45, Republicans only need to pick up six seats in 2014 to gain the majority.
Of the 36 seats up for election this year, some are totally safe, as popular incumbents are seeking re-election in states that generally vote for their party. John Cornyn (R–Texas), a two-term incumbent, probably won’t lose, just as three-term incumbent Jack Reed (D–R.I.), whose race is currently uncontested, won’t lose.
Eliminating those seats leaves us with Democrats defending eight competitive seats and Republicans defending two — still not a pretty outlook for the president’s party, especially considering that Republicans are defending two seats in Georgia and Kentucky, two solidly Republican states.
Exacerbating this situation for Democrats is a retirement wave where many of their most popular incumbents are retiring from senatorship after serving multiple terms. Montana, a state that Mitt Romney carried by double digits in 2012, is losing veteran senator Max Baucus (D–Mont.), who has decided not to run in 2014, instead assuming the role of ambassador to China. Even though the fundamentals of a Senate election in Montana favor Republicans, a superstar candidate like Baucus whose name is well known and who polls exceptionally well, would make this a tough pickup for Republicans.
Without the benefits of incumbency to influence the election, two fresh names on the ballot will likely fall prey to the state’s fundamentals, which favor Republicans and the most statistically significant factor in midterm elections: the president’s approval rating, which is hovering around a markedly low 43 percent.
Democrats have a similar situation in West Virginia, where Jay Rockefeller (D–W.Va.) decided not to run for re-election, putting a state that’s been hit the hardest by Democrats’ regulation on coal, safely in Republican territory. Add South Dakota to that list, and already Republicans are looking at three easy pickups, shifting the Senate landscape to 52 Democrats and 48 Republicans.
The next wave of possible Republican pickups comes form a group of Senators in traditionally red states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. This is where Obamacare and the toxic political atmosphere for Democrats comes into play. Mark Pryor (D–Ark.), Kay Hagan (D–N.C.), Mark Begich (D–Ala.), and Mary Landrieu (D–La.) are already fending off advertisements labeling them as the deciding vote for Obamacare. Recent polling puts their chances even with or slightly below their potential Republican competitors, as primaries aren't over yet. However, as we’ve seen in every election, a party’s candidates always suffer in polling during their primaries, so expect those four Senators’ races to sway a few additional points toward Republicans as primaries come to a close.
If Republicans pick up three of those four seats, they’ve already won the majority and that’s not even counting other potential pickups. Superstar Scott Brown (R–Mass.) just announced his candidacy in New Hampshire after moving there early this year, Carl Levin (D–Mich.) retired, and though Michigan is a traditionally liberal state, it is quite possible that Republicans will nominate a better candidate than Democrats and carry the race.
Additionally, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) just retired, and a high-quality Republican candidate could put a state whose most famed newspaper, the Des Moines Register, ended 30-plus years of endorsing Democrats to endorse Mitt Romney in 2012. Finally, Al Franken (D–Minn.) won a highly controversial race in 2008, and barely walked away with the victory. Obama additionally only carried the state with 52 percent of the vote in 2012. Now that the landscape is much more toxic to Democrats, a Republican pickup is not out of the question.
So what happens if Republicans do pick up the Senate? Obama has had a great time being able to paint Republicans as obstructionists, as his agenda has been primarily opposed by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which polling concludes is likely to stick around in 2014. If Republicans take over the Senate, Obama's whole “one half of one house is opposing my agenda” narrative turns into “one man against Congress.”
If history is any guide, the American people generally don’t like presidents that defy the will of Congress, as it stings of tyranny. Obama’s agenda will be effectively dead, and he’ll be forced to comply with the will of an adversarial Congress, or be defined as an inflexible, imperialistic ideologue for abusing his veto power. Either way, Obama’s days of creating and pushing an agenda are over, and the president whose candidacy marked the self-declared “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal” will be reduced to nothing more than a lame duck.