Open Your Mind to the Possibility of Another Midterm Mess for Democrats

by Nathan L. Gonzales December 2, 2013 · 10:48 AM EST

Democrats might want to consider opening their minds to the potential of another midterm nightmare.

I remember dozens of conversations with GOP candidates and strategists prior to the 2012 elections. Republicans simply couldn’t wrap their minds around the possibility that 2008 could ever be repeated. That failure in comprehension contributed to inaccurate polling and wrong assumptions as the two electorates ended up being remarkably similar.

Now, I’m starting to feel a sense of deja vu when talking with Democrats. Anytime 2010 comes up in a conversation, it is quickly dismissed as an aberration. Most Democrats can’t even imagine another election cycle where President Barack Obama is as unpopular and as much of a drag on Democrats as he was in his first midterm.

But I’m not sure we can rule out the possibility that next November will be a very bad year for Democrats.

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s job performance ratings were 44 percent approve/55 percent disapprove, according to the national exit poll. Today, the president’s job rating stands at 41 percent approve/55 percent disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

More troubling for Democrats is the evidence that Democrats could be vulnerable in places and races that should not be competitive unless there is an electoral wave.

In a recently released Quinnipiac University poll in Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall polled in the mid-40s against a handful of underwhelming and unknown Republicans. This is in a race currently rated by the Rothenberg Political Report as Safe for Democrats.

We don’t have comparable public data for too many other supposedly safe Senate races, but there are at least 10 other Democratic Senate seats that are structurally more vulnerable than Colorado. Of course, as I’ve written before, Republicans only need to win states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 to get back to the Senate majority. The GOP won’t likely need victories in Michigan, Iowa, Colorado or New Hampshire. Those would just be icing on the cake.

Of course the midterm elections are more than 11 months away, and it’s always wise to note that things could change dramatically, as they have since the middle of October. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth noting the difficult position Democrats are in.

As National Journal’s Alex Roarty pointed out, the chances of Obama’s job rating bouncing back significantly are slim.

“Historically, presidents whose approval plummets in their second term don’t recover,” he wrote, “In fact, no president in the last 60 years has watched his approval ratings bounce back during their second term. Either they didn’t make it to another stint in office (Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush), never dipped in the first place (Eisenhower and Clinton) or were removed from office at the nadir of their popularity (Nixon). Lyndon Johnson recovered somewhat, but only after announcing he would not seek another term. Ronald Reagan dropped from the low 60s to the high 40s amid the Iran-Contra scandal, and his popularity never recovered entirely until his last months in office. But it also never fell to lows experienced by Truman or Bush.”

Even if 2014 deteriorates for Democrats, it won’t look exactly like 2010.

On the House side, Republican chances of capturing another 63 House seats is virtually zero. Maybe most importantly, the GOP starts this cycle with 234 seats rather than the 179 seats they had in 2009. And redistricting has further narrowed the universe of competitive races. To have gains the size of the one reached in 2010, Republicans would likely have to win districts that the president carried with about 57 percent in the last election and a couple dozen districts where he performed worse but where Republicans aren’t even contesting right now.

The Senate is where the most dramatic changes could occur if a GOP wave develops next year.

In 2010, Republicans gained six Senate seats including two states that Sen. John McCain carried in 2008 (Arkansas and North Dakota) and four states that then-Sen. Obama won (Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). The only Democrat to win a Senate race in a McCain state in 2010 was Joe Manchin III in West Virginia. A six-seat takeover wasn’t enough for a majority in 2010 but would be enough next year.

Democrats have demonstrated their ability to win close Senate races in the past. But it’s worth noting that the party won six races last cycle with 51 percent of the vote or less in what was likely a more favorable environment than 2014. Incumbent Sen. Jon Tester was re-elected with 48.6 percent in Montana and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown won with 51 percent. Open seat Democratic candidates such as New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin won with 51 percent, and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp just cracked 50 percent.

Readers beware, this is not a projection. It’s too early for that. But Democrats ought not simply dismiss out of hand that 2014 could be another bad year — even a very bad year — for their party.