Republicans entered this election cycle with high hopes. President Barack Obama’s approval ratings had sunk into the low 40s, and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act had been a disaster. In an off-year election, Democrats weren’t expected to fully mobilize the young and diverse coalition that has given them an advantage in presidential elections. Off-years are also when a president’s party typically suffers significant losses.
This year seemed poised to turn into another so-called wave election, like in 2006 or 2010, when a rising tide of dissatisfaction with the incumbent party swept the opposition into power. Given a favorable midterm map, with so many Democratic Senate seats in play, some analysts suggested that Republicans could win a dozen of them, perhaps even picking up seats in states like Virginia, New Hampshire and Oregon.
The anti-Democratic wave might still arrive. But with 3 1/2 months to go until November’s elections, the promised Republican momentum has yet to materialize.
The race for the Senate, at least right now, is stable. There aren’t many polls asking whether voters would prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress, but the Democrats appear to maintain a slight edge among registered voters.
Democratic incumbents in red Republican states, who would be all but doomed in a Republican wave, appear doggedly competitive in places where Mitt Romney won by as much as 24 points in 2012.
The same could not be said for Rick Santorum or Blanche Lincoln in 2006 or 2010. The light-blue Democratic states and purple presidential battleground states, like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire, all seem to be heading toward tight races or Democratic wins, as one would expect in a fairly neutral year.
The race could break toward the Republicans over the next few months. There’s reason to think it will: The president’s approval ratings and the long history of the president’s party losing in midterm elections are consistent with that possibility.
There’s even precedent for the race to break over the last few months. In 2006, the full advantage for the Democrats didn’t become clear until October, after the Mark Foley scandal, and in 2008, they didn’t take off until mid-September, after the financial crisis. In 2010, the Republicans didn’t begin to gain a decisive edge on the generic ballot or in previously competitive races, like in Ohio and Wisconsin, until August.
But as July turns to August, the GOP is now on the clock. If there is to be a wave this November, the signs of a shift toward the GOP ought to start to show up, somewhere, soon. Every day that goes by without a shift toward the GOP increases the odds that there will not be a wave at all.
How could the Democrats dodge a wave, given the president’s weak ratings and the long history of the president’s party losing in midterms?
Part of it might come from the unpopularity of the Republican Party. The GOP is less popular today than it was in 2010, when GOP favorability ratings increased and Democratic ratings faltered in advance of the midterms. Obama’s approval ratings might also be deceptive: They’re mainly low because of minimal support from Republican leaners, not because Obama has lost an unusual amount of ground among his own supporters.
Another part might be the Affordable Care Act, which has met with some successes and which has faded from the forefront of the news. Whatever the public’s view of the law, it is clear that it will not be as potent an issue as Republicans hoped it would be. Similarly, the economy and the deficit are both in better places than they were in 2010.
The Republicans will have a good chance of picking up the Senate even without an anti-Democratic wave. There are so many Democratic-held seats up for grabs in red and purple states this year that the GOP could take the Senate under neutral conditions.
Candidates like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for instance, won by modest margins in 2008, even though it was an excellent year for Democrats and even though they were bolstered by huge black turnout.
But if a wave doesn’t materialize, and if Republicans don’t post victories in Democratic-tilting states like Iowa or Colorado, it will be hard to consider 2014 a great year for Republicans. That will be true even if they take the Senate by taking advantage of a favorable map.