Sunday, March 09, 2014

Three-Ring Circus in the US: the 2014 Elections Preview

This Tuesday the 2014 elections begin, in a way that actually counts.  I have already received several hundred emails this year--I would guess,  I certainly haven't counted, and they don't stay around long--asking me for money because of this or that deadline, from a couple of dozen people running for Congress (House or Senate) and from twenty or so various political organizations--just counting those specifically referring to the 2014 elections.*

For Openers: 
I am saving my funds until later, with one exception.  That is the special election next week to choose the new Representative in Florida's 13th House district (to fill the seat of  Republican Bill Young, recently deceased).  These "by-elections" get way too much attention and are considered much more significant than they usually are, but this one, though of course for only one House seat, is an unusually important one.  I say this for the following reasons:
1)  This is a swing district in a critical swing state--it's Pinellas County (Tampa and some neighboring areas), some of the most vote-rich precincts along the critical "I-4 corridor" which usually decides the close statewide elections.
2)  This "buy-election"  is the test battleground to try out the weapons to be used nationwide in November (Democratic grassroots donations, Koch Bros.-based money dumps), or, if you like the circus metaphor of my title, this is the initial parade of the performing organizations which will be looking to get our attention later, so they can try out a couple of their tricks and see if the crowd applauds.
3)  The Democrats' candidate is well-known--Alex Sink, former state Treasurer and "the woman who lost the election to Rick Scott" for governor of Florida.  She is taking on a Tea Party-backed lobbyist named Mike Jolly.   If the Democrats have any hope of picking up the net 17 seats they need to get control of the House back, the feeling is that they better start here, where they have a real chance. 
The tone of the appeals for money (both from her and for other groups looking to provide her support, or to provide "candidates like her" with support) has been fairly desperate. At this point in the campaign it's not about building organization, it's about flooding the market with TV ads. I've had too much of that, though I do buy into the arguments for the significance of this particular early showdown, so I'm giving some here.

Is it conceivable that this will be the pattern for the whole nation, spending uncounted millions and hounding loyalists into madness with incessant, nagging appeals for money and focus group-tested ads?  I predict the answer, this year, will be:  "Yes, sort of."   In high-profile contests in which the polls say the races are tight, the volume will be high and the frequency higher, but there will be many races in which probable victory will reduce the money arms race.  I expect the major political organizations to spend strategically, and I recommend that the thinking political contributor do so, too.

I will go into each of the three Rings of Power and provide some analysis; after that, I promise to ignore them in this blog (follow-ups will go into comments on this one) for six months or so.  I hope that formula pleases.

First Ring:  The Senate
It's becoming apparent that this is the most critical battlefront this year.  The Democrats could lose a lot politically by failing to retain control of a majority, and they have a great many seats to defend (it will be the reverse in 2016); worse, retirements have accentuated some major vulnerabilities for the Democrats.  They can afford a net of -5 and still retain majority control (in a world of perfect party-line voting; we're not there yet but well on our way).  Here are the most important races, with some oversimplified handicapping to indicate the degree of the challenge:

Probable Dem Losers:  WV (open--formerly Jay Rockefeller), ARK (Pryor), SD (open--Tim Johnson)
Quite Likely Dem Losers:  AK (Begich), MT (Walsh appointed to replace Baucus)
Quite Possible Dem Losers:  NC (Hagan), LA (Landrieu)
Dems Better-Not Lose:  MN (Franken), IA (open-Tom Harkin), NH (Shaheen), MI (open--Carl Levin), HI (Schatz appointed to replace Daniel Inouye), CO/NM (the Udalls)
Possible Dem Pickups:  KY (McConnell), GA (open-Saxby Chambliss)

I hope that it is very clear that losing five seats will be the easy part for the Democrats. All those states in the first two categories are ones that have been voting decisively for Republicans in Presidential elections.  The Democratic incumbents'/candidates' only hope is to dissociate themselves from the national party and keep a low profile, hoping they won't be blasted for supporting national party positions in the past.  With incumbents Pryor and Begich, there is little of that in their voting history, but also little reason in it for me to care whether they win or lose. I swore, after their vote on background checks for guns, not to give them my support, directly or indirectly, unless they did something substantial to compensate for that damning vote--they have not done so.

Montana may be a different case:   Max Baucus and Jon Tester have been able to run the gauntlet described above to win Senatorial elections, showing a possible path to victory.  Obama lost the state in both Presidential elections, but not by a huge margin (which he did in the other four), and it has a Democratic governor, Steve Bullock.  Bullock last month appointed his 2012 running mate, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, to the seat on an interim basis (Baucus resigned to become Ambassador to China), giving the Democrats an "incumbent", albeit one not elected to the position.  Walsh has moved forcefully forward, making national appeals for money and issuing a strong statement after this week's (failed) cloture vote on Sen. Gillibrand's proposed legislation to remove military cases with rape allegations from the usual handling through the chain of command.  Walsh came out in favor of Gillibrand's proposal and cited his experience as a military commander (one who had his difficulties with the military bureaucracy).  It may be difficult to hold the seat--Walsh's opponent will be the well-financed at-large Representative (Montana has only one), Steve Daines--but it should at least be a competitive race with something meaningful at stake.

The next category holds two incumbent Democratic Senators, women who have moved fairly boldly to take votes in favor of national party positions in the past couple of years--those votes could put them at risk, in states that voted Republican in the 2012 Presidential election (NC went very narrowly for Obama in 2008), and the big money will be brought out against them in the search for that critical sixth pickup.  Also, it will be brought out for them, assuming they remain competitive, by their national party organizations. These can be expected to be critical, high-stakes, high-spending contests, and Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu deserve our support.

Next is a large set of Senate seats which are either currently held by Democrats or have long been held by them; under the circumstances, the Democrats cannot afford to lose any of them. (Actually, there are more than those seven in that category, but I selected the ones in which I thought there was a significant danger.)  I think Al Franken in MN, Jeanne Shaheen in NH, and the two Udalls (Mark and Tom, in CO and NM) are all strong and popular in their states and will be able to turn back concerted Republican efforts (even if Shaheen's opponent is the carpetbagging Scott Brown, the former MA Senator), but there is also the danger that having to spend resources to do that will reduce the national party's efforts in the three critical contests of MT, NC, and LA.

The ones which would cause more concern are MI, in which the Republicans have made recent gains with their Gov. Snyder and an anti-Detroit approach which has been popular in the rest of the state; IA, which is split evenly between the parties, but has a good candidate in Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running as a younger version of popular, retiring Sen. Harkins; and HI, which votes somewhat reliably Democratic in statewide elections except when there is a split--and, unfortunately, there is a split.  Sen. Inouye, shortly before dying, had reportedly suggested that Gov. Abercrombie appoint Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to his seat, but Abercrombie did not do so, instead appointing state Atty. Gen. Brian Schatz.  Schatz and Hanabusa are running against each other in a fairly heated primary contest, with a lot of people and organizations taking sides;  when the primary ends (August 9), it will be essential for the Democrats to close ranks behind the winner.  In the meantime, my advice is for the rest of us to stay out of it, as either would be a reasonable Democratic Senator.

Finally, there are two--and only two--states which have Republican Senators and competitive races.  A pickup would be huge under the circumstances, and the races in these states are worth a look, even if the odds are unfavorable.  First is Georgia, a state which the Democrats have targeted as a long-term target to turn-- "purple, if not blue".  They have a strong candidate--Michelle Nunn, former CEO of a non-profit and daughter of longtime moderate Democratic Senator Sam Nunn--and a fair shot at an open seat, while the Republicans are in the middle of a protracted food fight with at least four candidates battling on the right side of the teeter-totter.

The other challenged Republican-held Senate seat is Kentucky's:  Kentuckians tend strongly Republican in national elections, but Democratic in state elections.  As this is a Federal election, one would think the Republicans have a strong advantage and the incumbent is the powerful Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but McConnell is not as popular in Kentucky as one might think, nor is he perceived as having brought home the benefit one might expect from such a powerful position (the two facts may describe the same thing).  The Democrats have an appealing candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Secretary of State, who has been raising money for quite a while.  This may not be a probable victory, but it is a possible one, and is a race that could divert Republican resources, in the same sense as the "better-not-lose" ones described above:  the Republicans can not afford to lose this seat.

So, for my money, the key races are: NC, MT, KY, GA, and LA.  The Democrats need to win two of these five races to hold the Senate. I will also give some money to my home-state Senator, Tom Udall, because he's great.  I don't think I will be giving to the national campaign committee, the DSCC, for the reasons explained above.

Second Ring:  Governors' Races
The picture for the Democrats with regard to the gubernatorial races is like that for the Republicans in the Senate, but reversed:  lots of targets of opportunity to attack.  The Republicans have a large advantage in state governments, much of it won in the 2010 elections. Whether by design or accident, it provides a counter to the Federal power structure:  one party wins the Presidency, the other tends to gain in the states two years later.  This trend went further than usual in 2010, with important results for House redistricting, but now the pendulum could swing back somewhat.  The point for the Democrats is not the raw number of statehouses that it regains:  there is no payoff in Congress, or even in the Presidential elections coming up in 2016, for the number of states controlled.  Instead, the payoff will be in winning specific strategic elections, turning the trend of statewide control and bringing benefit to the residents of some of those states.

A good example of what's in play is the additional Medicaid assistance available through Obamacare (a/k/a the ACA) which the Supreme Court ruled the states would not have to accept.  With the aim of frustrating the success of the ACA, some 20 states, ones with both the legislature and governorship controlled by Republicans, have opted out, thus depriving poor people in their states of healthcare assistance.  It is hard to theorize any benefit these state governments have achieved for their constituents with this posture (killing off their poor, maybe?), though the political motivations are all too apparent.  In 2014, the Democrats will seek to counter the perceived disadvantage of the ACA's implementation headaches with an attack on those governors and legislatures responsible for this policy.

Number one on the hit list is Rick Scott of Florida, the former for-profit hospital executive who won a narrow victory over Sink in 2010, spending some $70 million of his money, and has governed predictably, continuing to favor some of his healthcare friends and serving as a rallying point for the movement to refuse Medicaid in the states. His opponent in the general election will likely be former Gov. Charlie Crist, who served as Governor as a Republican, ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the Senate in 2010 (splitting the moderate vote, which allowed  Marco Rubio to win the seat), but who has now joined the Democrats.  In this case, we should be happy to support the turncoat's efforts, and we should expect a large portion of national contributions (for example, through the Democratic Governors' Association, which has been active in its fundraising efforts) will be funneled to him.  So far, Crist leads in the polls, but Scott is a dangerous and deep-pocketed opponent and we should take nothing for granted in this critical race .

The second-most important target in governors' races would be Pennsylvania, a state that tends Democratic but that tendency is fragile, depending on turnout in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  The incumbent Tom Corbett has low approval ratings, while the Democrats are expected to run a good candidate, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and regaining control of Harrisburg would be important for future national elections (for example, preventing future attempts to make voting more difficult).

Then there are a few states among the many governors who took office in the wave of 2010, in which the Democrats may have a chance to knock off one or more of the Republicans' aspirants to the national stage. Two big targets are Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio; on the next level would be Suzanna Martinez in New Mexico and Rick Snyder in Michigan.  All these states went for Obama in 2012, but these governors have largely sustained levels of popularity which will make dislodging them a challenge.

The last big target is Texas:  Rick Perry is leaving the governors' office after 3+ terms (he succeeded to the office when George W. Bush moved to the White House in 2001), and the Republicans have identified Greg Abbott as the designated heir to the statehouse in Austin.  Standing in the way is Wendy Davis, the state legislator who gained fame last year through a one-woman filibuster in an unsuccessful effort to block a restrictive anti-abortion law.  Davis' hope is that she can add a greater number of women to support the 40-45% which Democratic coalitions have been getting in the state for the last 20 years or so and finally put the Democrats over the top in a statewide election.  Clearly, hers is a difficult task but one that could mark a breakthrough in the partisan stalemate if she were to succeed.

The Republicans have a big-state target of their own in my sometime home state, Illinois.  People of all parties and political persuasion seem united in their view that the state takes too much money and doesn't spend it well.  The problem with the governor of IL--this one, the last two went to jail--appears to be ineffectiveness, not corruption or foreign political beliefs.  Governor Pat Quinn has managed to fend off possible primary challengers, but several Republican candidates are practically falling over each other to get the opportunity to take him on.

Third Ring: The House  
Unfortunately, in this contest there seems to be less than meets the eye at first glance.  The Democrats need to gain 17 seats to gain control of the House, about 4% (the Republicans need to gain 6% to get control of the Senate).  Despite the well-understood lack of legislative effectiveness from the Republican-led House, and the intensely low popularity levels of Congress, there remains the problem of  identifying 17 House districts seats with voting demographics and candidates suited for Democratic gains.

In fact, despite the Democrats' being in the minority, there seem to be as many seats that are suited for Republican pickups as for Democratic ones.  The nonpartisan U. of Virginia Center for Politics--I'd describe it as middle-of-the-road, low-risk in its previews of possible office turnover--has in its current ratings a grand total of two seats likely or leaning to change to the Democrats (Sink's race is one), and an equal number likely to change to the Republicans.  When you throw in the six races rated "toss-up" currently held by the Democrats, and the six with the same rating held by the Republicans, you don't even get to 17 seats likely to change party in either direction.  The current generic polls ("would you vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate in your House district") are basically a dead heat; the Democrats need a shift of 3-5% in their favor to move from what is basically a no-trend situation.

I'm getting fund-raising appeals from dozens of Congressional candidates all over the country.  They are all upbeat, timely, and persuasive.  Half of the candidates are completely unfamiliar to me.  I'm going to hold off until I know more about the races that are viewed as highly competitive, or important, or both.  I may even end up trusting the central House campaign committee (headed by Debbie Wasserman Schultz) to make the decisions about where the money should go.

There is one common thread in all three rings:  the Democrats' fates depend on their ability to get voters to turn out.  In these mid-cycle elections, turnout drops sharply, but usually more for the Democratic voters than for Republican ones.  The long-term demographic advantages of the Democrats--better shares among young people and minorities--become a relative liability in the midyear elections. So, that is one more reason to keep our expectations at reasonable levels.

*Thus, not counting the usual non-profit/charity groups, or those who are developing warchest funds for 2016 elections.  Neither am I counting the constant appeals, coupled with topical commentary, from the Obama fundraising organization, OFA:  It used to mean Obama for America--or, as I think to myself in my most malicious moments "the ofay organization"--it now means "organizing for america".)
ofay--Kiddies, if it's unfamiliar, ask your parents if they've heard this one:  it's an old-fashioned derogatory term that was used by some segments of the African-American population to refer to white people.  Its etymology as being Pig Latin for "foe" is dismissed by the online dictionaries, but I've never heard any other. 


Chin Shih Tang said...

3/10 12:10 a.m. (CET): That's Kay "Hagan", not Kay "Egan" in North Carolina. Sorry to those who read the early edition; thanks to Kay for a timely email (again) requesting money.

Chin Shih Tang said...

3/18: Alex Sink lost the Congressional special election by 2%/3000 votes. Certainly a bad sign and a wake-up call to any Democrats that may have been complacent. Turnout was pretty miserable, not surprisingly, and the avalanche of TV ads probably only reduced it.

Sink could run again for the seat in November if she chooses, and she may: a smart move for her if she wants it would be to buy a home within the district (though it's not reuired, it helps). Bottom line, though: she showed again she's not that good a candidate.

Chin Shih Tang said...

I see a mistake here I didn't catch before. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the head of the Democratic National Committee; the head of the DCCC is Steve Israel.