Washington Report: Summer Scorecard

by Craig Piercy

The summer of 2013 is not a very pleasant time to be in Washington. The cherry blossoms have given way to oppressive heat and humidity; the streets are clogged with slack-jawed tourists who habitually ignore traffic laws; the Nationals are struggling to stay above .500, and Congress remains a polarized, gridlocked, dysfunctional place. It’s a perfect time for political junkies to close their eyes and imagine a crisp late fall morning—say Wednesday, November 5, 2014, the day after 2014 midterm elections. Yes, it is still 18 months (and a lot of twists and turns) away, but the larger dynamics are starting to come into focus.

The six-year itch: Second-term presidents lose seats in the midterm congressional election—it is one of the most durable trends in American politics. In fact since WWII, every second presidential administration save one has seen its party sustain (often sizable) losses in the House and Senate. The one exception, Bill Clinton’s second midterm in 1998 held during a time of booming economic growth and shrinking budget deficits, yielded Democratic gains of exactly three seats in the House and none in the Senate. Advantage GOP.

Congressional redistricting: At the beginning of every decade, after the results of the census are released, each state legislature must redraw its state’s congressional district boundaries to ensure they have the equivalent number of constituents based on the new census data. As everyone knows, the Democrats took a shellacking in the 2010 election, and while the headline defeat was the loss of the House of Representatives to the GOP, the real long-term damage was done at the state level where Republicans picked up control of many state legislatures and governorships. As a result, the GOP gained unfettered control over the boundaries of 213 U.S. House districts, nearly five times the number controlled by Democrats, and were effective in drawing them to achieve maximum partisan advantage. Several of my Democratic friends have worried privately that the 2010 redistricting may have assured the continuation of a GOP majority in the House until 2020. Advantage GOP.

Midterm voter turnout: Voter turnout in midterm elections is always lower than presidential years. Historically, low turnout usually provides the GOP with a slight edge. However, that edge may be accentuated in 2014, as so-called “marginally attached” voters made up an unusually large percentage of the winning Democratic coalition in 2012. If these voters are also turned off by an administration whose issues and priorities seem very different than Candidate Obama’s, it could be advantage GOP.

Obamacare: The American public has been roughly split down the middle in its attitudes towards the Affordable Care Act. In 2014, many of the ACA provisions governing individual insurance plans will come into force. No one quite knows how it will work out, but there is a distinct possibility that insurance premiums will rise, patients will be subjected to new outof- pocket expenditures, and businesses will feel the impact. Potential advantage: GOP.

Immigration and demographics: Most of the Republican establishment continues to see the immigration issue as the biggest threat to the long-term prospects of the GOP. This concern was voiced perhaps most eloquently by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who said, “[If] we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community in my view is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view.”

At this writing, it is unclear if the House and Senate can reconcile their differences and agree on a final version of the bill that can be cleared by both chambers. If the immigration bill fails and the public blames Republicans for its demise, advantage: Democrats.

The far right: In both 2010 and 2012, the GOP came tantalizingly close to obtaining control of the U.S. Senate. In both cases, its failure to do so can be linked directly to the success of extremely conservative candidates who performed well in the primary, but couldn’t attract centrist moderate voters to win in November. Think Sharon Angle in Nevada and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Advantage Democrats; especially in states like Montana and South Dakota, red leaning states where incumbent Democratic senators are retiring.

The economy: While the U.S. economy continues to expand at a somewhat anemic pace, the public’s confidence of a recovery has improved. At some point, Chairman Bernanke and the Federal Reserve will have to dial back its quantitative easing measures, which could rattle the U.S. equity and credit markets. However, the overall expectation is the economy will continue to strengthen in 2014. Advantage Democrats.

In short, the GOP has a clear edge in the 2014 elections. However, the Republicans’ tendency to overplay their hand, both legislatively and in political primaries, may prevent them from fully capitalizing on the structural advantage.

by Craig Piercyby
by Craig Piercy
by Craig Piercy
by Craig Piercy