I don’t make a habit of responding to political articles but a recent Politico article caught my attention. The article (can be read in full here) cites GOP worries over their lack of a clear advantage in the House. Republican expectations of a double-digit seat gain have been tempered by the reality of few true swing districts left after redistricting, sagging numbers for both parties and a lack of dough for the midterm sprint to the finish.
While I have no doubt the analysts, strategists and experts Politico interviewed are experts in their trade I have to wonder whether their perceptions are jaded by unrealistic expectations. Just less than a year ago Republicans could have been expected to lose seats after the Government Shutdown. Then we met the Obamacare rollout disaster and expectations changed overnight.
What seems to be forgotten overnight is that midterms are often decided by the intangibles. Consider 1998 and 2002 (non-wave midterm years). Those elections were not defined by big ideas or ideological fights. They were defined by the candidates, their individual personalities and turnout.
Of course, it should seem obvious the party most analysts expect to gain seats should come out with big ideas and lay out a clear agenda for the country. But consider how voters view both parties. The GOP brand is in tatters (thanks to some Republicans not viewing their party favorably). The Democratic brand is not much better. In this environment it would be political suicide to lay out a massive agenda that you know you cannot pass (especially for the GOP).
This will not stop analysts and editors from pining for it though (see example here). What is often forgotten is that the party has many strong recruits (and some weak) who are tailoring their races to local issues. This seems counter-intuitive when the national GOP has done everything it can to tie Democratic incumbents to the President. Further, incumbent Democrats are trying to survive the storm by campaigning on local issues.
But notable GOP candidates have done all they can to make their campaigns local. In Arkansas, freshman Congressmen and Iraq war veteran Tom Cotton has run on strengthening national defense in a state with many veterans. Ben Sasse in Nebraska is talking about higher education reform. Joni Ernst in Iowa has come out on the military handling sexual assault cases (against). In Colorado, Congressman Cory Gardner is in favor of immigration reform in some form.
It makes sense candidates would localize their races (incumbent or challenger). We live in a candidate centered system where 100% allegiance to party is not demanded (unlike Europe’s electoral systems). Candidates can differentiate themselves from their parties on a host of issues which helps make our democracy work. In a political environment where it is unwise to link oneself to big ideas candidates are offering solutions that fit their electorates (a joy of the federalist system).
The ultimate point being Republicans are putting forth ideas and their values. They are just doing it at the local and not national level. In 2010, it was clear the GOP could ride out public angst over the economy to victory. They did. This time, candidates know they need to do something more to win, even if it means waiting on unveiling big ideas.
All this brings us back to the Politico article linked at the start of this post. The article focuses on only what can be measured in polling and candidate qualities. Republicans are struggling in key races in FL-2, VA-8 and Nebraska. Likewise, Democrats in New Hampshire and Texas appear to be imploding. In any election there will be good and bad candidate and in wave elections bad candidates can be carried to victory regardless of voter views of the national party. Oftentimes, this is not swayed by money.
Consider 2010. The Politico article cities 2010 as being the election where the GOP dominated the money race but this is not necessarily true. While new groups spent on the GOP’s behalf, Democratic incumbents dominated fundraising. Many still lost. The case is the same for 2014 except for two twists. This time, GOP incumbents are largely out-raising their challengers but Democratic 3rd party groups and the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) are out-raising their GOP counterparts.
This rightly worries Republicans but probably more than it should. The DCCC is dominating the money race for the same reason GOP non-candidate entities did in 2010. There simply are not that many Democratic incumbents in danger to receive donations and the star of Democratic fundraising, Obama, is more likely to campaign for the Congressional arm of the party than individual candidates.
This obvious reality won’t alleviate GOP worries. Congressional Republican leadership is trying to coerce their members to donate to the NRCC. So far, no luck. But the party has a trump card often ignored, the RNC. Yes, the largely ignored Republican National Committee has seen a revival under new leadership and new donations have fueled its effort to aid individual campaigns through data, volunteer registration and analysis. Assuming the RNC’s massive, $100 million data effort pans out it would go a long way to leveling the playing field.
Ultimately, combine all the factors of this midterm; money, candidate qualities, the House map, lack of big ideas, Obama’s unpopularity and some I didn’t mention (gerrymandering and GOP voters more motivated to turn out) and you find the GOP could easily gain 10-15 House seats but they could also gain none. This is just the way the election looks right now without a national issue defining the election.
Republicans AND Democrats should both be worried. Public attitudes towards both parties is at end of days levels and incumbents, well, let’s just say their numbers have seen better days. But GOP strategists need to take a chill-pill. The GOP does have an advantage in this midterm. The party could screw it up just as cash and party popularity could eat into their gains. Honestly though, it probably won’t.