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Why Democrats are worried about the midterm map

March 20, 2014 at 6:43 PM EDT
The sluggish health care rollout, a president with struggling approval ratings and the influence of outside money all have Democrats worried about midterm elections. They could have a tough time taking back control of the House in November, while their hopes of holding onto their advantage in the Senate have dimmed. Gwen Ifill gets analysis from Amy Walter and Stuart Rothenberg.
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GWEN IFILL: As this year’s midterm election campaigns intensify, Democrats are growing nervous that geography, policy and politics may cost them control of the Senate. History usually predicts midterm setbacks for the party in power. And with the help of some strong challengers, Republicans are hoping to take advantage of that fact.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Valencia!

GWEN IFILL: In public, President Obama owns the bully pulpit, and Democrats own the Senate majority. Today, the president focused on the economy in a public speech in Orlando.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When women succeed, America succeeds.

GWEN IFILL: But, tonight, he will be fulfilling another mission: raising money for Democrats at a private Florida fund-raiser at a politically perilous time.

Warning signs are popping up everywhere for Democrats. Last week, Republican David Jolly won a special House election in the Sunshine State that Democrats had hoped to use to build momentum. Red flags are also popping for Democrats in the Senate, where Republicans need only six seats to take the majority this fall.

Part of the problem: Democrats are struggling in seven states they now hold that Republican Mitt Romney won in 2012. Now the GOP has extended its target map to include a handful of typically Democratic-leaning states. For Democrats, the best chances to turn the tide on Republican turf are in Georgia and in Kentucky, the home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But Democrats recently acquired two new worries, in Colorado, where Republicans landed a top-tier recruit when Congressman Cory Gardner announced he would challenge Democrat Mark Udall, and in New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has moved across the border to explore a challenge to incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

We explore the contours of the midterm election landscape with Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper, and Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report.

In a nutshell, why are Democrats so worried, Amy?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: You laid it down politically.

It’s the map, I think, is the most important thing that makes them nervous, and it’s the political environment. And when the president’s approval rating right now is sitting at 42, 43 percent, even if you’re in a relatively Democratic-leaning or you could call it competitive state, that’s a tough place to be as a Democrat. If you are in a red state, that is dismal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s what you’re seeing, too, Stu?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: There’s a particular dynamic that kicks in, in midterm elections.

There’s a reason why the president’s party has won House seats only twice in the last 100 years in midterms. It’s that voters tend to go to the polls to express their dissatisfaction with the president, and his party’s candidates suffer.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s divide this into two big chunks.

One, the states that Romney won in the 2012 election where there are now Democratic — Democratic seats which are endangered, some of them are Democrat retirements. We can see them here. And that’s South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia. And some of them are endangered incumbents, North Carolina, Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Let’s just unpack that for a moment, Amy. Which of those states are you watching?

AMY WALTER: Well, the open seats are the toughest ones for the Democrats, mostly because these are the seats that have moved over to the Republicans, at least at the federal level, for quite some time.

The only reason they stayed in Democratic hands is because they had Democratic incumbents who were really connected to those states. Those people are gone.

GWEN IFILL: Like Montana.

AMY WALTER: Like Montana, like West Virginia with Jay Rockefeller. And those folks — with those folks done, almost impossible for Democrats to keep those seats.

The other states are places where the Democrats, they have been fighting against the tide, in some cases for quite some time and holding on, like Louisiana with Mary Landrieu. In others, they’re a brand-new senator in a state that has traditionally been Republican, like Mark Begich in Alaska. But they come with a big last name. The Begich name in Alaska is very well-known. His father was a former senator there.

GWEN IFILL: Or North Carolina, for instance. That falls into that same…

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, North Carolina is a little different, in that it’s not quite as red as the other states, like Arkansas, and Alaska and Louisiana.

It is a competitive state. The president won it initially in 2008. He lost it narrowly in 2012. But, again, I think Amy is exactly right. You have states where Democrats have a better chance, either because the landscape is better or the Democratic incumbent has the kind of name that has allowed him or her to resist against what has been a Republican wave.

GWEN IFILL: Like in Arkansas.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Like in Arkansas.

Mark Pryor in Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, or Mark Begich in Alaska, these are Democrats who have deep connections to the state. And that’s what they need to do. They need to try to localize these campaigns, so voters in those states say, it’s not about — just about Barack Obama. It’s not about the national environment. It’s about my senator, Mary Landrieu or Mark Pryor.

The Democrats are trying to do that. It’s going to be difficult, frankly, for them to succeed.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s even difficult in areas — and let’s at another map here, where these are states that President Obama won in the last election. They’re retirements, two Democratic retirements, one in Michigan, Carl Levin, one in Iowa, Tom Harkin.

And there are endangered incumbents in two other states. We mentioned them in the setup there, in Colorado and New Hampshire. How does that…

GWEN IFILL: … the problem?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think the thing to note about those four states is that we were watching three of them as swing states in the presidential race last time.

GWEN IFILL: That’s true.

STUART ROTHENBERG: So, yes, the president won them. But he won New Hampshire 52, Iowa with 52, Colorado with 51.5.

So these were narrow wins. And so that — I think that means that the landscape isn’t as good for Democrats as Democrats may be thinking.

AMY WALTER: Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead. Add to that.

AMY WALTER: Oh, no, no, no.

And, you know, at the end of the day, this comes down to mood. Right? And Stu pointed this out. Angry people vote. People who are sort of complacent or even people who are generally happy don’t always go out and vote. It’s the most motivated people, especially in a midterm election, that go out and vote.

And so when the president — this is why it’s important when you look at his national number at 42 or 43 percent. You have to take it then and say, well, what would that mean in a state that he already lost by 10 points or a state he narrowly carried? That means he’s even lower than that national number. It’s very tough for a Democrat to overperform the president by that big of a percentage.

GWEN IFILL: How much of a drag in the big picture is the health care law, and how much would he have had problems whether this law existed or not?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think it is a drag, in part because Republicans are enthusiastic about it, and they’re energized.

GWEN IFILL: It’s, what, being angrier here.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right. Right. It’s going to affect Republican turnout.

But I think, at the end of the day, when we talk about the final few weeks, few months of the campaign, independent voters make up their mind, it’s more generally about mood. How’s the economy doing? Are there new jobs being created? How has the president performed?

For them, I think the ACA is already baked into this.

AMY WALTER: Except if there are more problems with the ACA. And that’s really the question, because September and October could bring — that’s traditionally when insurance companies come and they bring you your insurance premiums if you’re a small business for the next year.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

AMY WALTER: If those go up in September and October, right before the election, not really a good sign for Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: We see this big push to get people enrolled. Is there a plus to be had out of that, or is this just running in place?

AMY WALTER: I feel like it’s a little bit running in place.

Look, the bottom line is going to be, I think, health care reform’s success politically, at least in the short term, will be based on how people who currently have insurance feel about it. Do they feel like their own health insurance has been in any way compromised by this new — this new health care law?

If it has, then they will take it out on the president. If it hasn’t, they’re not going to use it as a motivating factor.

GWEN IFILL: We have been watching Senator Harry Reid go full-bore against the Koch brothers, the big Republican finance brothers duo.

How much does that indicate that money is a big problem and Republicans are the ones who have got it?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I don’t think it’s that the Republicans have all the cash.

I think it’s an attempt to kind of redefine the election to say — the problem is, it’s really inside baseball.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

STUART ROTHENBERG: The average voter doesn’t say, wow, who’s contributing to who?

So I think it’s a general Democratic frustration here. When you look at these races, it’s not as though the Republican candidates have a lot more money than the Democratic Senate candidates. That’s not the case at all. AMY WALTER: But the AFP is out, which is the Koch brothers-backed group.

GWEN IFILL: Americans for Prosperity.

AMY WALTER: I mean, when you look at how much they’re spending in some of these states we just talked about…

STUART ROTHENBERG: That’s true.

AMY WALTER: … in North Carolina, their super PAC up against the Democratic super PAC called the Majority — Democratic Majority — what is it? Majority PAC, yes.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Majority PAC.

AMY WALTER: Majority PAC.

It’s, in some cases, 3-1, 4-1 difference in the number of ads that have been run. But I agree with you that it’s — it may not stay that way.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And, remember, the Republican super PAC that was so big last time, Crossroads, seems not to be active this cycle, at least at this point. They will be later in the cycle. But, so far, AFP, the Koch brothers group, has really been carrying the ball for Republicans as the outside group.

GWEN IFILL: But no matter how much money is involved, it doesn’t matter, if the president is the drag.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Everybody is going to have enough money, I think, in these races, although now that there are more races on the table for Democrats, there may be trouble. But, no, the president is a much bigger problem.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: OK. We will leave it there.

GWEN IFILL: Just say yes.

AMY WALTER: Just say yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report, thanks.

AMY WALTER: Thanks.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Gwen.