The 2014 Midterms: What to Expect Tonight
This is a guest post by Sam Sero, an LA-based Daily Kos blogger, comedian and artist. — Ed.
First off, I’d like to thank the founders of Unfettered Equality for inviting me to write about tonight’s elections. It’s a real honor. I have been doing coverage on the midterm elections for The Daily Kos over two years now and it certainly has been an interesting experience.
If you read Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, he paints a bleak picture for Senate Democrats but a promising one for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. However, if you follow Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, he paints a rosier picture for Senate Democrats and shows that Democrats are going to make gains in the Governor’s races. I think all of us can at least agree that the Republicans will hold onto the House of Representatives. There are several factors why the GOP is bound to hold onto the House but despite the momentum, I’m not fully convinced they will win both chambers. Let me break it down.
Being that it’s a midterm election and Democratic voters tend to sit out these elections, the GOP is poised to hold onto the House despite having terrible approval numbers. But let’s look at the other factors here:
The Map is a Lock
Ever since the Tea Party wave helped the GOP take over the House, governor and state legislative races, the GOP has pushed through gerrymandered maps in states like Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and my home state of Pennsylvania. These gerrymandered maps have made it practically impossible for Democrats to gain more seats. In 2012, despite President Obama winning Pennsylvania by five points, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) winning re-election by nine points and Kathleen Kane (D-PA) becoming the first female Attorney General, Democrats failed to pick up seats in the competitive Philadelphia suburbs. They even lost a seat in blue-collar Johnstown, where Democratic Congressman Mike Critz lost to Republican Keith Rothfus. The gerrymandered map and President Obama’s low approval numbers may have kept potential Democratic candidates from contesting more seats this year.
Waiting Until 2016?
Some potential Dems could be waiting for 2016, when it is presumed that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee. A lot of blame for this has gone to Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Now, I would never call Rep. Israel the best DCCC Chairman – in fact, I think he’s sub par at best. He’s continuously passed up opportunities to fund Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) challenger, Rob Zerban (D. WI), in what is a surprisingly competitive district. But not all the blame is on Israel here. He did try to persuade more Democrats to run this year and not wait until 2016. The real issue is that national Democrats are more focused on holding competitive seats in California, Illinois, New York, Arizona, West Virginia and Georgia, though we could see some surprise results in congressional races in Hawaii, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska and Utah.
National Democrats knew winning the House was not in the cards this year. Holding onto the Senate and winning some Governor races were the top priorities of Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). This is pretty obvious, given the consistently high fundraising numbers posted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Furthermore, the only way to change gerrymandered district maps is by having Democrats elected on the local level. For Democrats, this election year is really about survival and beginning to recover from the damage done by the 2010 Tea Party wave. Plus, I think special elections in South Carolina and Florida foreshadowed that 2014 was not going to be a great year for congressional Democrats. Stephen Colbert’s sister, Elizabeth Colbert-Busch (D-SC), ran an excellent campaign against disgraced former Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC), but the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove style of dirty campaign tricks prevailed when a mysterious polling firm pushed a rumor that Colbert-Busch had an abortion. This turned out to be completely untrue, but the lie still helped Sanford win Senator Tim Scott’s (R-SC) former seat. The special election in Florida between David Jolly (R-FL) and Alex Sink (D-FL) was bedeviled by many factors, from a gerrymandered district to Sink’s weakness as a candidate.
As I mentioned above, Silver and Wang have gone back and forth about whether the Democrats are doomed or will hold the Senate this year. After doing extensive coverage on these campaigns and the recent polls from outfits like PPP and Quinnipiac, I’m not completely sold that a GOP Senate is inevitable. It’s been a weird year of polling, with party advantage shifting back and forth. It’s easy to conclude that Democrats are doomed because of Obama’s unpopularity and the Republicans’ argument that granting them control of the Senate will stop obstruction. It’s obvious the obstruction won’t stop, but that argument could still work with disgruntled voters. Yet all politics are local in the end, and while Republicans are set to pick up Senate seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana and Arkansas, we have to consider a few things:
No Issue Dominates
Guy Cecil from DSCC, who focuses on voter registration and GOTV efforts, said that unlike past Senate elections, there isn’t a single issue defining this year’s races. In 2006, it was about Iraq. In 2008, it was about the Wall Street bailouts. In 2010, it was all about Obamacare. Republicans have seen every talking point against Obamacare diminish left and right. In red states like Kentucky and Arkansas, the Affordable Care Act is doing incredibly well thanks to the implementation from Democratic governors Steve Beshear (D-KY) and Mike Bebee (D-AR). Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stopped attacking his opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY), on this issue. Grimes hasn’t run on the Kentucky health exchange program known as Kynect, implemented thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and if she loses (which looks likely) some will say her refusal to embrace the issue cost her a chance to unseat McConnell. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) has defended the Affordable Care Act in his race against Tea Party Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). However, both Kentucky and Arkansas have trended even redder these past years, and despite McConnell’s terrible approval ratings voters might reelect him and send Cotton to the Senate as protest votes against Obama.
Can the Polls Be Trusted?
Some have argued that Democrats might be undersampled in these polls, which is possible due to an overreliance on landline phones and not polling enough cell-phone-only voters. In Colorado, polling firms have been criticized for undersampling Latino voters, hence Tea Party Rep. Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) decent leads over Senator Mark Udall (D-CO). Some of these polls show Gardner’s decent numbers with Latino voters, which is hard to believe given his Gardner’s consistently anti-immigration record. Now, the latest polls are oversampling Latino voters and showing the race competitive. Gardner is doing very well with white men, while Udall is doing well with women voters and Latinos. Democrats have a great ground game in Colorado and are hoping for a repeat of 2010 this year. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) benefited from a great ground game focused on energizing female and Latino voters and narrowly defeated Tea Party candidate Ken Buck (R-CO).
Alaska is a similar situation, where the polling has gone back and forth between Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) and former Attorney General, Dan Sullivan (R-AK). Alaska is a red state that could go Republican, but Begich is a true-blue Alaskan with a record for delivering for Alaska, whereas Sullivan has been labeled a carpetbagger. It’s the same dynamic in New Hampshire between former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (R-NH) and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The big difference is New Hampshire is more willing to swing blue, and despite polls showing a tight race Brown has stumbled a lot in the campaign. Shaheen has a record as both governor and senator, and has been on the side of the voters in New Hampshire on issues like income inequality and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Ground Game Will Be Crucial
Like Colorado, Alaska will be determined by who has the better ground game. Begich has a better ground game than Sullivan, with more campaign offices out in rural Alaska, not to mention his great connection with the Alaska Natives who make up 19% of the electorate. They helped Begich win in 2008, and they could very well help him secure a second term this year.
In Iowa, we’ve seen a close race between Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Tea Party State Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA). Braley has stumbled due to gaffes like the “farmer Grassley” remark, and the Koch Brothers have been spending big to defeat him. Ernst’s extremist past – from conspiracy theories, to advocating for ending the minimum wage, to wanting to shoot feds for implementing Obamacare – has come under scrutiny. Not to mention that Ernst cancelled her meeting with the Iowa press, which ended up endorsing Braley. Early voting has given Braley a good lead, so the Democratic machine might help him eke out a victory. Plus, Braley is one of the few Democrats still polling well with working-class white male voters, so don’t write him off.
In Georgia and North Carolina, early voting and heavy turnout from black voters could be what helps Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Michelle Nunn (D-GA) win electoral victories. Democrats have been heavily focused on registering new voters and encouraging people to vote early. While we can debate all we want about the polling samples and Obama’s effect on the Democrats’ chances, who has the better ground game is what really matters. Republicans have relied too much on outside group attack ads form the likes of the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove. Democrats, on the other hand, have been spending more time reaching out to voters in person and GOTV is the key to success.
Tea Party Falters
We’ve also witnessed the Tea Party royally screw up their chances in North Carolina by nominating State House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-NC), the very face of the incredibly unpopular General Assembly. Tillis is still behind Hagan in the polls and the Libertarian candidate is drawing some of his support. We saw some late surprises in Kansas and South Dakota, but now it’s looking like Republicans are fighting like hell to save Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) from Greg Orman (I-KS). Once it was revealed that Roberts doesn’t even claim residency in the state he’s represented in Congress since 1981, the voters turned on him. Roberts finds himself in the same situation that former Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) faced in 2012. Like Roberts, Lugar didn’t establish residency in the state he represented in the U.S. Senate since the late 1970s. Roberts may not have been defeated in his primary like Lugar, but he’s certainly in danger of losing. Rick Weiland (D-SD) was always the progressive underdog in his race to succeed retiring Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) in his bid against former Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD). Harry Reid immediately wrote this race off when former Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle (D-SD), pushed his former aide to run for this seat. Democrats had their eye on former Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) for this seat, but in the end she passed and the DSCC refused to invest in this race for a long time. Now Weiland’s had a late surge in his campaign, especially after news broke about Rounds’ involvement in a scandal currently under FBI investigation, but former Senator Larry Pressler (I-SD) is attracting some of Weiland’s support.
Prediction: Cautious Optimism for Democrats
I would say I’m cautiously optimistic about the Democrats’ chances of holding onto the Senate. Of course the climate is very anti-Obama, and Republicans and Tea Party voters are fueled by hate and fear and are eager to stick it to the president. But local factors will decide many of these races, and voters will determine who best represents their states in the Senate. So while I may not be able to tell you which party will be the majority party, I can tell you we may not know the answer until after tonight. It’s very likely Nunn will have to face off against David Perdue (R-GA) in a runoff if she fails to secure 50% of the vote. It’s also looking like Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) will be going into a runoff race against Tea Party Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) after tomorrow’s “jungle primary.” It’s looking like neither Landrieu or Cassidy will secure 50% of the vote, but Landrieu was tested in a tight runoff race in 2002 and is ready for another one. Louisiana has become redder since Obama became president, so it’s a matter of the voters remembering who delivers for Louisiana versus wanting to stick it to Obama.
The gubernatorial elections prove that all is not lost for the Democrats, and that there is no Republican wave this year. While it may not be 2006, it’s certainly not 2010. The Republicans might be able to convince voters trusting them with the Senate, but when it comes to how they’ve governed locally, the voters are eager to get rid of them.
Pennsylvania Will Go Blue
My home state of Pennsylvania is a great example. Tea Party Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA) is on the verge of being crushed by businessman Tom Wolf (D-PA) by double digits. Some elections analysts have scratched their heads as to why Corbett is so unpopular, given Pennsylvania history of reelecting its governors.
There are several factors why Corbett is going to lose royally. His steep, $1 billion cuts to education have put the Philadelphia school system in complete chaos. His decision to give the fracking companies (who contributed a lot of money to his 2010 campaign) huge tax breaks and his refusal to enact a 5% extraction tax have caused Moody’s to downgrade Pennsylvania’s credit rating three times already. The economy remains lousy and Corbett keeps putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to Pennsylvania’s unemployed. He actually said that the reason unemployment is still high in Pennsylvania because too many people are stoned and can’t pass a drug test. Then of course there was his party’s attempt to ram a mandatory ultrasound bill for women considering abortion through the Pennsylvania Senate. Thankfully, the bill failed to pass. Republicans also don’t want anything to do with Corbett after he was called out for trying to rig the Electoral College system to make Pennsylvania easier for Republican presidential candidates to win. Then there were the voter ID laws, which were stuck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Republicans have refused to help pass Corbett’s key legislative goals of pension reform and privatizing the liquor industry in Pennsylvania because even Republicans know how toxic these initiatives are.
Republican and conservative voters are angry at Corbett because his refusal to impose an extraction fee caused property taxes to rise, breaking his “no tax pledge”. Corbett also tried to meddle in the 2012 Republican Senate primary, favoring moderate businessman Steve Welch over Tea Party favorite Tom Smith. Smith ended up winning the primary and losing to Senator Casey, but Republican voters haven’t forgotten about Corbett’s role. However, the ultimate reason Corbett is screwed can be summed up in two words: Penn State. Corbett was Attorney General when the Jerry Sandsuky sexual abuse scandal happened. While the independent investigation found no proof that Corbett didn’t slow walk the process for political gain, there are still a lot of questions as to why he delayed certain aspects of the investigation. Corbett received support from the Penn State Alumni Association in his 2010 bid, and Corbett was the one who pushed for the NCAA sanctions and called for Coach Joe Paterno to step down. It was evident that Republican voters were going to let Corbett lose to Wolf when Corbett grossly underperformed in the 2014 primary. This is the same thing that happened to Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) in 2006. Conservative voters sat out the primary and general election when Santorum refused to back the then-Republican controlled school board’s push to include intelligent design in the school’s curriculum. Furthermore, after a crowded primary, Democrats landed a strong candidate in Wolf. He’s not a typical politician and his campaign ads highlight how he returned to save his family’s business and keep his employees staffed and well paid. Wolf is the polar opposite of Mitt Romney’s (R-MA) public persona: He’s a boss who cares about his workers and is serious about investing in good-paying jobs.
Corruption Could Be a Factor
It’s not just Pennsylvania where Republican candidates look doomed. Governors Rick Scott (R-FL) and Nathan Deal (R-GA) face serious corruption charges, and their refusal to expand Medicaid in their states have cost them moderate support. Charlie Crist (D-FL), the former moderate Republican governor turned Democrat, has been running one of the most aggressive campaigns of the season. He’s hit Scott on everything from Medicaid expansion to climate change. Jimmy Carter’s grandson, State Senator Jason Carter (D-GA), has made the race competitive for Deal, who’s under FBI investigation for ethics violation. Deal has a better shot at winning reelection than Scott because of Scott’s lack of transparency and his connections with fracking and oil companies who want to drill in the Seminoles. Scott’s past as the CEO of the company that defrauded millions out of their Medicare has come back to bite him in the ass.
Tea Party Governors Stumble
Then of course you have Tea Party Governors like Paul LePage (R-ME) and Scott Walker (R-WI), who are fighting for their political lives. Wisconsin’s job numbers have been lousy, and Walker is under investigation for election tampering in the 2012 recall. Not to mention, public sector unions are still enraged with Walker for stripping them of their collective bargaining rights. Trek Bicycle CEO Mary Burke (D-WI), run an aggressive campaign against Walker and is hoping to ride voters’ anger into power. In Maine, LePage’s victory was due to third party candidate Eliot Cutler (I-ME), spoiling the 2010 election for Democrats when Cutler received a late surge in the race. This caused a split between Democratic, progressive and anti-LePage voters, handing LePage the victory. LePage has proven to be another outspoken Tea Partier, telling President Obama and the NAACP to “kiss his butt”. He also refuses to expand Medicaid, a program with overwhelming support from Maine voters. Democrats landed a strong candidate in Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) who is running neck and neck with LePage. This time around, there’s no evidence to suggest a surprise surge for Cutler. Cutler hasn’t dropped out of the race, but he gave his voters his blessing to vote for whoever they want. It’s just a matter of Cutler’s voters coming to their senses at the polls and voting for Michaud if they’re serious about getting rid of LePage.
The two big surprise races looking good for Democrats are in Kansas and Alaska. Governor Sam Brownback’s (R-KS) disastrous tax cut experiment has caused Kansas’ economy to fall into the toilet. State House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-KS) has consistently been ahead in the polls, with leads ranging from two to seven points. It’s not that crazy for Democrats to be competitive in the Governor’s race in Kansas; let’s not forget that former Health Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS), was Governor of Kansas from 2003 to 2009. But this race is different because it’s a referendum on Republican economic policies. Alaska turned out to be a competitive race for Governor Sean Parnell (R-AK) once Democratic candidate Byron Mallot decided to drop his campaign and join Alaska Independence Party candidate Bill Walker’s ticket. Parnell is facing backlash for refusing to expand Medicaid in Alaska and for his lack of oversight and responsibility during the Alaska National Guard scandal. Even former Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) decided to endorse the Walker-Mallot ticket after Parnell dismantled Palin’s oil and gas tax program. Both these red states are looking like serious pick up opportunities for Democrats.
Michigan remains one of the most competitive races in the country. After Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) did the Koch Brothers bidding in signing “right to work” laws into effect, unions are eager to get rid of him. Not to mention, Snyder’s handling of the Detroit bankruptcy hasn’t settled well with voters. Former Congressman Mark Schauer (D-MI) has been running an aggressive campaign hitting Snyder on everything from his education cuts to his pension tax, which hurt seniors. The polling remains tight, but there’s a lot of evidence showing that undecided volters are leaning towards Schauer. Schauer has heavily focused on getting the Democratic base to come out in high numbers during the midterm election, campaigning hard all over the state; his GOTV efforts could pay off. One sleeper race is Arizona, where State Treasurer and former Cold Stone Creamery CEO Doug Ducey (R-AZ) faces off against businessman Fred DuVal (D-AZ). Ducey had to run one of the most anti-immigration campaigns in order to win his crowded primary. DuVal ran unopposed in his primary and spent the time reaching out to Latino voters. This race could be surprising.
Back from the Dead
Democrats look like they are going to lose the governor’s race in Arkansas, but they’re back from the dead in states like Illinois and Connecticut. Governor Dannel Malloy (D-CT) lost support because of his tax policies, but got lucky when his opponent Tom Foley (R-CT) blamed a plant’s closure on the workers. Foley has also been critical of the gun control laws Malloy put into place after the Sandy Hook massacre, but he’s refused to give his plan on how to deal with gun control in the state. Malloy has a slight lead over Foley and he could squeak out another victory. Governor Pat Quinn (D-IL) also looked like a lame-duck Governor because of his pension cuts and his refusal to play ball with the corrupt Illinois State Legislature. He was hit with his own scandal when it looked like his anti-violence program was looking like a slush fund. But Quinn got lucky when wealthy venture capitalist Bruce Rauner (R-IL) won the GOP nomination. Rauner’s investment company was involved in various bad investments, from charters schools to nursing homes, and Rauner has showcased how out-of-touch he is with the voters. He called for eliminating the minimum wage and said he would’ve vetoed marriage equality, medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. Quinn has been rebounding in the polls and it looks like he might pull off another tight victory.
The two Governor races that could go either way for Democrats are in Colorado and Massachusetts. Despite a thriving economy thanks to marijuana legalization and his handling of the Colorado floods, Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) finds himself in a tight race against Tea Partier Bob Beauprez (R-CO). Hickenlooper has apologized for initiating a policy limiting the bullet count in assault rifles due to the Aurora movie shooting. This has caused Colorado police to lash out against Hickenlooper because the law affects them. Beauprez is also trying to paint Hickenlooper as being soft on crime for refusing to execute Nathan Dunlap, who went on a shooting rampage at Chuck E. Cheese in the 1990s. Dunlap has proven to be mentally disturbed. Beauprez has his own baggage, including a history of corruption in Congress and a track record of extremism. He lately has been trying to paint himself as pro-choice despite a long record of being extremely anti-choice and refusing to make exceptions in cases of rape and incest. He also wants voters to repeal the marijuana legalization laws passed in 2012, and he wants to handle immigration in the style of Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ). Hickenlooper still has a shot here but it could be a tight one.
In Massachusetts, after a bitter primary, Democrats chose state attorney general and failed 2010 senate candidate, Martha Coakley (D. MA). Democrats have been afraid that she will repeat the same mistakes she made in her bid against Scott Brown (R-MA) for Ted Kennedy’s former senate seat, but she has run a campaign with few errors. Her record as Attorney General has come under scrutiny and attack from failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate and venture capitalist Charlie Baker (R-MA). Baker is cut from the same cloth as Mitt Romney,and he was involved in a pay-to-play scandal with Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), whose firm helped drain pensions in New Jersey. He’s also been called out for referencing an emotional fisherman’s story, which turned out to be fabricated. Republicans have been able to win the governorship in Massachusetts before, and Baker does have a slight lead over Coakley. But undecided voters tend to lean towards Coakley, so this race is still in play.
Despite Obama’s approval ratings, Democrats still have a serious chance at holding onto the Senate and winning Governor’s races. Republicans can’t use the Affordable Care Act against Democrats as effectively anymore, but they’re relying on voter apathy and frustration with partisan gridlock to give them Senate control. However, issues like fair pay, immigration reform, reproductive rights and raising the minimum wage could help Democrats hold on. Voters side with the Democrats on the issues, but it’s a matter of electing a Congress that can get something done. Sadly, Republicans have been pulling every voter suppression tactic, from voter ID laws to ending early voting, so it’s clear they don’t have as many of these races in the as they claim. We’ll see if voters fall for the Republican narrative or can see through it and reject it when they pull the lever.
Sam Sero is not only a political junkie but also a comedy writer, director and producer. You can read Sam Sero’s election coverage at The Daily Kos here, and he contributes every Sunday to the website, Crooks & Liars. Watch his original comedy work here: http://www.funnyordie.com/oresmas