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Why Republicans have the advantage this fall

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  September 2, 2014 at 9:03 AM EDT

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The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • We get you ready for the post-Labor Day sprint
  • The GOP is favored this fall
  • Democrats’ path to holding a narrow majority
  • Obama to Estonia to reassure Eastern bloc allies

The scales tip toward Republicans: Welcome to the campaign. Post-Labor Day, the table is set for what is on pace to be the most expensive midterm in history. It could lead to a Republican majority in both the House and Senate for the last two years of President Barack Obama’s time in office. So why do Republicans have the advantage starting out? First, with primary season all but wrapped up — Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island hold the last primaries next Tuesday — Republicans have done all they can structurally to prevent problematic candidates from emerging, unlike in years past. But most importantly, it’s where these races are taking place — largely in conservative-leaning states. In fact, of the 12 states with competitive Senate races that are likely to decide the outcome of control of the Senate, Republican Mitt Romney won nine of them in the 2012 presidential election by an average of 16 points. And that’s in a year when Republicans lost the Electoral College by 126 votes. (Republicans need to net six states seats to wrest control.) What’s more, if you add in the three states won by President Obama, Republicans still have an 11-point advantage. Democrats are defending more states — 10 of the 12 are seats held by Democrats. And the two Democratic targets are in states Romney won by an average of 15 points. Plus, the demographics of who shows up in midterm elections favor Republicans. The electorate in midterms is generally whiter, older, more likely to be married and have better paying jobs.

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Why Democrats can still win: Republicans are only favored, though, to win between four and eight seats. And Democrats still have a chance of retaining the Senate. But how can that be with the fundamentals described above and a president with among his lowest approval ratings, and even lower in these 12 states on average? Because candidates matter. Incumbents traditionally have an advantage because voters in those states have already elected them statewide, giving them natural bases — and fundraising networks and turnout operations — to get 50 percent. What’s more, the candidates Democrats have in some of these red states are legacy candidates. In other words, not only are they personally well known, their families are too. The Landrieus, Pryors, Begiches, and Udalls are near political royalty in their respective states. But will their personal dynasties pay the dividends needed this fall and be enough to overcome the national environment? It could be for some but not for others. How many survive could be the difference between a Democratic and Republican Senate for the last two years of Obama’s presidency.

The $4 billion campaign: Steve Austin’s mouth would hit the floor. For those of you more familiar with him as a wrestler than a 1970s TV character, he was the $6 Million Man. Even in 2014 terms — his limbs would be worth $29 million in today’s dollars — that would pale in comparison to the money flooding politics. Get this: the AP reports that $1 billion has already been spent on campaign ads, and “Before it’s all over, the bill for the first midterm election since both Democrats and Republicans embraced a historic change in campaign finance is likely to grow to $4 billion or more.” Almost a quarter of that money could likely be untraceable. So-called “dark money,” dollars spent by groups that don’t have to disclose its donors, has already hit $50 million, but is projected to get close to $1 billion and surpass the record set in the 2012 presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Impact of wealthy donors: The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reports that wealthy donors have embraced their newfound freedom to give more than the previous limit of $123,200 to federal candidates and party committees wiped away earlier this year by the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. “Together, 310 donors gave a combined $11.6 million more by this summer than would have been allowed before the ruling. Their contributions favored Republican candidates and committees over Democratic ones by 2 to 1,” Gold writes. This one quote from a big GOP donor popped out from Gold’s story: “You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” Andrew Sabin, the owner of a precious metals refining business, told the Post.

Obama heads overseas: The only time President Obama will be seen in public Tuesday is his departure from Washington on his way to Estonia to reassure Baltic allies that the U.S. will stand with them even as Putin flexes his muscle in Ukraine. “Part of the reason I’ll be going to Estonia is to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations,” Obama said last week. The AP’s Julie Pace filed this curtain-raiser on the president’s trip, which will include a meeting with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Wednesday before departing for this week’s NATO summit in Wales. The sessions Thursday will include Afghanistan and Ukraine. The president will also hold a press conference on Friday before returning to the U.S.

Immigration delay? President Obama promised to unveil immigration executive action by the end of the summer if Congress didn’t act. Labor Day came and went with no executive action. Yes, summer technically doesn’t end until Sept. 22nd, but President Obama on Thursday hinted that he might delay action even further. Remember, we noted Thursday that because of the terrain this midterm is being played on, any action by the president on immigration could serve to only fire up the conservative base and further imperil Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate. With an internal White House conflict on what to do about immigration given Democrats’ chances this fall, don’t be surprised if the decision is, in fact, punted until after the midterms. The president already seemed to be hanging it on the lower number of unaccompanied minors coming across the border in the last few months. “We’re seeing a significant downward trend in terms of these unaccompanied children,” President Obama said in his news conference Thursday. “And what that, I think, allows us to do is to make sure that those kids are being taken care of properly with due process.” The tie to the unaccompanied children seemed to come out of left field, especially considering this border crisis was never the real reason for weighing action.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1944, future president George H.W. Bush, while serving as a Navy pilot during World War II, took out a Japanese radio tower before his plane was hit and he was forced to eject. What rank did Bush achieve in the U.S. Navy? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to Carole Ann Kronberg (@Marsh_Owl) for guessing Thursday’s trivia: What reason did John Hinckley give for shooting President Reagan? The answer was: to impress actress Jodie Foster.

LINE ITEMS

  • Starting Tuesday, Justice Department officials will try to prove that the 2011 Texas voter ID law discriminates against blacks and hispanics. If the DOJ is successful, it would put oversight of the Lone Star state’s voting laws back into the hands of the federal government for the first time since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act last year.

  • The administration has freed just one low-level prisoner from Guantanamo Bay this year, raising doubts, the New York Times reports, about whether Mr. Obama will be able to close the prison before he leaves office, which was a campaign promise.

  • Mr. Obama officially notified Congress of last week’s airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops in Iraq.

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a prime target at this weekend’s Americans for Prosperity summit in Dallas.

  • Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes seizes on the release of Senate Minoity Leader Mitch McConnell’s recorded speech before the Koch brothers, but she’s also out with a positive biographical spot.

  • McConnell hits back against Grimes’ attack ads and on the alleged misuse of campaign funds for her campaign bus.

  • New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s new ad criticizes Republican Scott Brown for false attack ads and touts her loyalty to the Granite State.

  • The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is out with an ad slamming New York Rep. Michael Grimm on his multiple criminal charges.

  • North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Sen. Kay Hagan will debate for the first time Wednesday. The debate will be moderated by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell.

  • In Alaska’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Byron Mallet and Republican Bill Walker are joining forces on the Independent Party line to take on GOP Gov. Sean Parnell.

  • The jury in the public corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife is expected to begin deliberations Tuesday.

  • There are fewer women poised to take over governors’ mansions than originally projected. In the past decade, they’ve held nine governorships twice, but now only hold five now and are expected to pick up only one or two more.

  • The closest Senate races this year are the ones where candidates are furthest apart ideologically, according to the New York Times political rating system.

  • Recently defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will serve as a vice chairman and member of the board of investment firm Moelis & Co., for which he will open a Washington office. The Financial Times reports that he’s receiving a $1.4 million sign-on bonus and at least $2 million in annual pay.

  • A federal judge in Louisiana temporarily blocked a new abortion law that would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is trying to build up his foreign policy chops, traveling to Mexico this week to prove he’s ready for the international stage. So far, however, his foreign policy has emphasized “the personal projection of authority,” with little substance.

  • An image depicting Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg as the Dos Equis man was tweeted from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s personal account Sunday. The photoshopped meme pokes fun at the DA’s drunk driving arrest, for which Perry tried to have Lehmberg removed from her position.

  • Congress is very unpopular nowadays, but they weren’t always seen in such a bad light.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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