Strange things can happen in the 90 days before an election.
The plethora of Washington political pundits have done their best to provide us with an endless stream of assessments of the 2014 elections. By looking at respective war chests of the party
campaign committees and some of the competitive campaigns, they give the financial advantage to the Democrats and their fundraiser-in-chief. The same pundits, aware of the second term woes of an incumbent President, analyzed the polling data and constructed a fall narrative which leans Republican.
Emerging from all this is the common understanding the GOP will hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and add a few seats to their margin. The GOP will gain anywhere from four to eight seats in the U.S. Senate. Thus, the big question remains unanswered and as of now, is unanswerable.
The average voter doesn't focus a lot on the fall elections until after summer vacations are over and the kids are back in school. That makes pre-labor day polling a trailing edge indicator rather than a reliable predictor. However, the upcoming Congressional August recess signals the beginning of the real fall campaigns.
Incumbents come face to face with constituents and insurgent candidates come face to face with incumbents. It is a revealing test for both. It is a time when the reality of "out there" sets in and begins to replace the party dogma in shaping fall campaigns. This is the period of time which has given rise to many transformational election dynamics: the Contract with America, the Tea Party and the ripples of eventual wave elections. So what should we be looking for in the next few weeks?
At some point in the next 60 days, public opinion solidifies on the big issues. Already, two thirds of the voters think the country is on the wrong track. Voters are unhappy with the President's handling of just about every current issue, let alone the chronic drag of Obamacare. Thus, over the next two months, Democrats are going to discover the President's 42% Real Clear Politics national approval rating is inflated. In perpetual swing states like Iowa, which is attuned to politics as few others, his approval is already at 40% and falling and it is unlikely to get any better. Democrats will increasingly be swimming against the tide of an unpopular President and an unlikable Senate Majority Leader. This is going to change the campaign dynamics. Watch for desperate candidates with troubling internal polling to begin turning toward more provocative positions.
Although republicans still have a brand problem, Democrats have an increasing base turnout problem. Currently 38% of voters have a "favorable" impression of Democrats compared to only 29% who feel favorable towards Republicans. Neither number is particular good. However, 76% of republican voters say they are "absolutely certain" to vote in November compared to only 67% of the democrats.
Although unemployment numbers suggest an economic revival, the GDP shrank nearly 3% in the first quarter and the average household wage is about where it was a decade ago. For the average voter, the economic revival isn't real and national statistics are unlikely to convince them otherwise. That is why democrats have turned their monetary advantage toward motivating their base by pushing social issues that may not play well in some of the more competitive Senate races: read war on women and gay marriage playing in Arkansas, Georgia, Alaska, Montana, Louisiana, Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina. Their push of the impeachment rumor to motivate their base is unlikely to get much traction unless some clueless republican gives it credence, ala Akin and the war on women, 2012.
Moving down the home stretch, the bigger challenge for Senate candidates may have less to do with all this partisan politics than finding ways to appeal to state electorates looking for honest, genuine, level headed leadership. GOP candidates have to prove to a skeptical public they are ready to govern wisely by showing less intolerance and more positive vision. Democrats have to prove they aren't going to provide more of the same by blindly following the President and his agenda.
In the race for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, GOP candidate Joni Ernst will win because she is genuine Iowa. Congressman Bruce Braley played politics with his comments about Senator Chuck Grassley. Senator Mitch McConnell made his election more difficult by telling a job hungry electorate "economic development isn't my job." If Senator Mark Udall loses in Colorado, it will be because Cory Gardner stayed on a positive economic message while Senator Udall pandered to the social issues of the left. In deep blue Oregon, Dr. Monica Wheby may sneak up on Senator Jeff Merkley because she has a compelling story and his is more about politics. So on it goes.
From a realistic standpoint, the barn door is closed on Democrat hopes of retaking the U.S. House. In the race for control of the US Senate, the GOP has three pickups in the barn with eight tossups in the corral, six of which are Democrat held. There are another three possible surprises, none of which would accrue to the benefit of Democrats. All of these latter races will be candidate dependent and in each, signs will soon emerge as to which way they are headed. We will keep you posted.