Chris Sautter: What are Democrat chances in 2014?
Thursday, October 17, 2013 10:25 AM
WASHINGTON - Former Congressman and 9/11 Commission Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton once said about the landslide election in 1964 that carried him and his fellow Democrats to a record majority in Congress, “any fool running on the Democratic ticket could have won that year … and there were a few that did.”
The same could be said about Democrats in 1974 and Republicans in 1994 and 2010. The political winds in each of those years were so strong that the usual rules and campaign dynamics didn’t apply.
The question a year out from the 2014 midterm elections is whether the Republican brand is so badly damaged by recent tactics that their majority in the House of Representatives is truly in jeopardy. Or to paraphrase Lee Hamilton, is the public so disgusted with the Republican Party that they will vote for almost “any fool running on the Democratic ticket” in 2014.
There is growing evidence that Republicans will indeed pay a very high price for their strategy of shutting down the government and bringing the country to the brink of default over continued opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Three quarters of American disapprove of how Congressional Republicans handled the budget showdown in a Washington Post—ABC poll. Similarly, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Obama by a 22-point margin (53% to 31%).
“If it were not so bad for the country, the results could almost make a Democrat smile,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart commented. Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Hart, said that the NBC/WSJ poll is among a handful of surveys that stand out in his career as being “significant and consequential.”
The problem for the GOP is not just that a clear majority of Americans blame them rather than President Obama for the federal shutdown. The real problem for Republicans is why the public blames them. Americans are beginning to think the House is being led by a bunch of lunatics. That perception is not far from the truth.
This shutdown is different than the one Newt Gingrich led during the Clinton presidency. Indeed, the margin of blame for the GOP is much wider than the level of blame Republicans received during the last shutdown in 1995-96.
The difference between the last shutdown and this one has to do with who drove the confrontation. When Gingrich was Speaker, he was calling the shots for Republicans. Gingrich had been the party’s chief strategist during the 1994 elections. Newly elected House Republicans owed their victories to Gingrich and his “contract with America.”
Today, the Tea Party radicals who have kept the government hostage for the past several weeks don’t owe their seats to anyone in Washington. They are in debt to Tea Party activists back in their home districts.
When the American public sees who is in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives, they don’t see rational people. They see confederates who hold to a militia ideology and mentality. They see birthers who deny that the failure of the United States to pay its bills on time is a serious problem. They see House backbenchers who have no qualms about sticking it to a House Speaker of their own party. In short, Americans see anarchy in the House of Representatives and it freaks out many of them.
There are many good reasons why Democrats may not take back the House in 2014. A year is a long time and events could intervene to change the country’s political dynamic. Congressional districts have been so finely gerrymandered that few are truly competitive. The party in power has gained seats in an off-year election of the president’s 2nd term only once. Democrats might get blamed for a still sputtering economic recovery. A majority of Americans still don’t approve of Obama-care.
But the trends today suggest a major anti-GOP wave is building that could defy the usual rules of thumb in off-year elections. Not only do Republicans face a fast growing demographic squeeze as demonstrated by the 2012 presidential election results, but the GOP brand is becoming increasingly unappealing even to traditional Republicans who should feel quite at home within the GOP. For example, polls indicate the Republican government shutdown is strongly opposed by high-income suburban whites who usually favor Republican candidates.
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to take control of the House. A survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP) taken from Oct. 2 through Oct. 4 shows Republicans behind in 17 of the districts analyzed. In another four districts, the incumbents fell behind after respondents were told their representatives supported the government shutdown. Three Republican incumbents maintained their lead even after respondents were told of their representative’s support for the government shutdown.
Democrats will have to put 35-40 districts in play to have a realistic chance to take control. They will have to win races that are not only rated as “toss-ups” and those rated as “lean Republican,” but also in districts that Republicans are currently favored to win. Yet the shutdown has given Democrats a chance to overcome the odds because Republicans are starting to look like they neither can nor want to govern.
Traditional Republicans are guilty of enabling GOP Tea Party extremists. For too long they have refused to confront the racism and extreme tendencies within the Tea Party movement for fear of inviting a primary challenge from the right. They may have no alternative now if they want to survive.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.