After a highly contentious, hugely unproductive session, members of the most unpopular
It is a paradox of these discontented times. Participants in a Cincinnati focus group led by Democratic pollster Peter Hart expressed their feelings toward lawmakers by drawing tombstones and broken hearts. Public opinion surveys show contempt for Congress reaching unprecedented levels.
But as much as they dislike their own representatives,
"Republicans blame liberals and big government and
That selective outrage works against the sort of throw-the-bums-out election that would produce wholesale, across-the-board upheaval in the House. After several elections that produced considerable turnover, including Republicans' 63-seat gain in 2010, the likeliest outcome in 2014 is a comparatively modest partisan shift.
Democrats need to win 17 seats to regain control of the House, which they lost in 2010, the first midterm election under President Obama. That is not a huge number by historical standards but one that could prove insurmountable given the head winds Democrats face with the botched rollout of Obama's signature healthcare program, his middling standing in polls and voters' tendency, in off-year elections, to punish the party in the
More significantly, there are far fewer takeover targets, since the number of competitive House seats has plummeted. Two decades ago, there were 99 crossover seats — that is, House districts that voted for one party for president and the other for Congress. Today there are 26, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks elections nationwide.
Put another way, 93% of Republican House members represent districts carried by Republican
That is not to say there won't be at least a few fresh faces. California, once a lock for congressional incumbents, has more than half a dozen competitive congressional races — in San Diego, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley — thanks to new political boundaries drawn by a citizens' commission rather than self-interested officeholders.
The chance for a partisan shift is much greater in the
Republicans, who need six seats to take control, start the new year with an advantage, at least on paper. Of 35 races, 21 are for Senate seats held by Democrats. All but a handful of the most competitive are in states carried by Romney, including Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Montana and West Virginia. The latter two have open seats, as does Georgia, where Democrats are eyeing a rare pickup opportunity with Michelle Nunn, the daughter of retired four-term Sen. Sam Nunn.
The quality of candidate matters, as Republicans painfully learned in the last two election cycles when the party squandered opportunities to capture the Senate by fielding nominees seen as too extreme by voters in Nevada and Colorado, among other places.
This time, more than half a dozen candidates are running primary campaigns fueled by the tea party, running to the right of Republican Senate veterans including
Frustrated by the negative impact of October's
"We're going to be getting involved in primaries earlier and more often than ever," said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the
Elsewhere around the country, several of the largest states will hold gubernatorial elections, including California, Florida, Illinois and New York. The outcome in some could help shape the 2016 presidential contest, now in its early stages. Republican Govs.
In Texas, where the Latino population is rapidly growing, Democrats hope their long-shot gubernatorial hopeful,
Midterm elections tend to draw far less interest, and thus lower turnout, than contests held when the presidential candidates are also on the ballot. That tends to help Republicans, whose constituents are more likely to vote.
Some sort of crisis — economic, military, political — could change that; the fortunes of the two parties have already seesawed over the last several months.
For a time, anger over the government shutdown boosted Democratic prospects, raising hopes the party could buck the historic midterm pattern of losing congressional seats. But that advantage quickly evaporated with the problem-plagued launch of Obama's healthcare overhaul.
"The lessons of both the last three months and the last several election cycles is that you shouldn't make dramatic predictions," said Roy Behr, a Democratic campaign strategist, who did allow as to how one thing seems certain to hold 11 months from now, when voters cast their ballots: "People will be unhappy with Washington."
Unless something radical happens, that's not likely to change much after the election either.