What a difference a month makes in politics. In mid-October Democrats were openly gleeful they had gotten the better of their GOP opposition over the government shutdown. Republicans were divided and feuding, the party’s base was simmering and meanwhile Democrats were raking in hoards of cash and seeing several strong recruits enter newly competitive House races. Now, with the disastrous roll out of Obamacare Democratic hopes of retaking the House are all but gone even to the most optimistic analyst. As for the Senate, Democratic strategists concede that even Senators in non-red states such as IA, MN, NH and MI could face tough races due to Obamacare.
As a result of the Obamacare furor generic ballot polls have returned the party’s to near parity among registered voters. This means the GOP likely leads among the electorate that will show up to vote next November. More worrisome for Congressional Democrats are that the generic ballot polls do not show the party’s new weakness in the districts they must win to retake the majority in the House. These seats are diverse in terms of geography and political composition but they lean to the right. Mostly suburban/rural districts, Democrats always needed help to win the majority and take 18 new seats. The government shutdown promised them that help. Obamacare’s roll out has stolen that help away and made their climb steeper. In fact, many of those most impacted by the law’s effects, higher premiums, cancelled plans and loss of access to their preferred carrier reside in these districts.
In contrast to the kind of seats Congressional Democrats need to win to claim the majority Democrats need to hold predominately rural states to keep control of the Senate. Consider, of the seven states Obama lost in 2012 that have Democratic incumbents up for reelection (MT, WV, AK, LA, NC, SD and AR) only North Carolina can be considered to have more than one major urban area with surrounding suburbs. The rest all have one urban area with surrounding suburbs. This means these Democratic incumbents need to win moderate, suburban voters and just enough rural voters to hold their seats. Obamacare has made that harder.
Along with hurting suburban voters some of the law’s most onerous provisions have impacted rural voters. Rural voters have lost access to preferred coverage and their doctors and now have to drive to a city to see somebody. Obamacare has helped accelerate the trend of doctor’s practices being bought up by major hospitals or consolidated in major population centers. Also, higher premiums have hit rural voters and even worse limited policy options have left these individuals with few choices. Every Democrat in the Senate up for reelection voted for this law which means they must explain or sidestep the impact their actions have had on rural individuals lives.
Being able to explain or sidestep their votes will be crucial. A new Fox News poll on Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina (where Democratic incumbents remain in Romney states) finds by a 3-1 (46%-15%) margin adults say a a vote for the Healthcare law would make them less likely to support the candidate. Nationally, the numbers break down 37% less likely to 21% more likely and among Independents the numbers are 35% less likely and 18% more likely. Among whites, the largest constituencies by far in swing House districts and Senate races the numbers are even worse, 46% less likely and 20% more likely.
Certainly, elections are about more than just bad laws. Candidates and money do matter. But wave elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010 helped propel a number of weak candidates to victory. In 2006 and 2008 this was to the benefit of the Democratic Party. In 2010 it helped the GOP. Many traditional incumbent advantages in these years did not matter. But Democratic incumbent Senators have a number of tough opponents already declared (see prior posts). The racial and ideological composition of their constituencies also limit their ability to fight the impact of the national political environment.
Republicans have already promised they will do little little to nothing to help Democrats get out of the jam they have wrought. Democratic leadership would be unlikely to accept their olive branch even if they offered one. In the House last Friday the GOP offered a bill that would allow Americans to keep their plans if they wanted. While 1 in 5 Democrats voted for the GOP plan (39 Democrats), including 23 of 25 Democrats rated vulnerable in some form by Roll Call, President Obama said he would veto such a plan if it hit his desk and Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not bring the bill up for a vote in his chamber (he may have no choice regardless).
All these factors help explain why Democrats are now on the defense heading into 2014. But even before the government shutdown and Obamacare fiasco the party was facing a headwind known as the “Six year itch.” This electoral phenomenon has seen numerous two term President’s party lose seats as the party’s base tires of their standardbearer and partisans on the other side work hard to limit the President’s agenda. Democrats could see this phenomenon magnified in 2014 due to Obamacare. Republicans certainly would not mind.