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A keep-the-bums-in mood may prevail in midterm election

Polls show an unprecedented level of contempt for Congress, but voters still dislike members of the other party most, suggesting any partisan shift in November's election will be modest.

January 01, 2014|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), right, filed a last-minute primary challenge against incumbent GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the minority whip. Cornyn, who had appeared likely to escape a significant threat from the right, is one of more than half a dozen Senate veterans facing a candidate fueled by the tea party.
Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), right, filed a last-minute primary challenge… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)

After a highly contentious, hugely unproductive session, members of the most unpopular Congress in history will face voters this year and, very likely, win reelection in overwhelming numbers.

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, Democrats and Republicans hold members of the opposite party in even lower regard.

"Republicans blame liberals and big government and Obama," said Stuart Rothenberg, who analyzes races for his nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Democrats are upset because they think the tea party won't allow anything to get done — Republicans are too extreme."

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.

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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 White House.

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 Mitt Romney in 2012 and 96% of Democrats represent districts won by Democrat Obama, according to Cook. That partisan sorting leaves exceedingly few seats up for grabs.

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 Senate, where candidates are forced to run statewide rather than hunkering in the partisan strongholds of the House.

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.

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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 Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In Wyoming, three-term Republican Sen. Michael B. Enzi is battling Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a fiercely contested primary.

Frustrated by the negative impact of October's government shutdown and the rise of a more confrontationally conservative breed of Republican, the GOP establishment has begun pushing back.

"We're going to be getting involved in primaries earlier and more often than ever," said Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which recently helped a favored Republican push past a tea party challenger in the race for an open House seat representing Alabama. "Our campaign effort won't be about dropping a bunch of ads in late October, but rather a yearlong effort."

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