The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 40

The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 40

THE BRIEFING: VOLUME II, ISSUE 40
To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This week:

  • Louisiana Senate runoff offers Republicans a chance to win ninth seat of 2014
  • Obama damages his credibility with feigned ignorance of his own top Obamacare consultant
  • 2016 promises to be a very difficult year for the Senate GOP

Senate 2014

Louisiana: Before moving on to the new legislative situation and the 2016 election, there’s a bit of unfinished business to tend to. Louisiana’s Senate race isn’t over yet — we go to overtime now, in which Rep. Bill Cassidy, R, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D, face off in a runoff scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 6.

Louisiana is a strange place — a state with a strong contrarian streak that tends to buck national trends. As the rest of America blamed President George W. Bush and Republicans in general for the human suffering after Katrina in 2005, voters within the state went in exactly the opposite direction, largely blaming their Democratic governor and shifting their votes to the GOP en masseThere is an enduring myth that this occurred mostly because of a loss of population in New Orleans, but the largest change in the state’s politics came at higher elevations — the smaller upstate parishes abruptly stopped voting for Democrats, and they haven’t looked back since.

Their reddening has since caused a Republican governor to be elected and flipped the state legislature to the GOP in an overall realignment that is likely to last at least one decade if not several.

Landrieu, daughter of a famous New Orleans mayor and brother of the current one, survived her state’s antipathy toward Barack Obama in 2008 when she came up against a weak GOP challenger who had just recently switched parties. Between high black turnout and white Democratic nostalgia for her family name, she won easily. Those days are over, and her ninth life may have already been lived.

Landrieu’s score of less than 43 percent in the jungle primary on Nov. 4 against two Republicans is a very bad sign for her campaign — bad enough that she has been abandoned by her party committee and every outside group. According to the FEC, 100 percent of the independent expenditures in the state in the last week have come from outside groups supporting Cassidy. Also bad is the partisan but entirely plausible internal poll that his campaign released last week, showing him up by 16 points, Landrieu’s unfavorable rating at 57 percent, President Obama’s disapproval at 62 percent, and 62 percent preferring a Republican majority to a Democratic one. Shave off five points if you like for the poll’s partisanship — it still spells doom for Landrieu unless a miracle occurs.

The losing Republican candidate in the primary, Tea Party favorite Rob Maness, has wholeheartedly backed Cassidy’s candidacy. The outcome of the Dec. 6 race is probably a foregone conclusion. Landrieu’s eleventh-hour efforts to move a Keystone bill through the U.S. Senate are unlikely to help her even if they succeed. Likely Republican takeover.

Outlook

One thing not helping President Obama at the moment, as Obamacare enters its second annual open-enrollment period, are the multiple videos now surfacing of Jonathan Gruber, the architect of his (and Mitt Romney’s) health care law, boasting about having deceived an “ignorant” electorate about multiple provisions in Obamacare.

Gruber’s central role in putting the plan together is very well documented. He was paid $390,000 by the Department of Health and Human Services and lent out by the White House to Democrats in Congress to help draft it. His strikingly candid comments, which both the media and Republican operatives failed to notice until after the election season, essentially vindicates most of the arguments conservatives made at the time about the shady process by which it passed.

Astoundingly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi, D-Calif., played dumb when asked about Gruber, claiming she’d never heard of him. President Obama offered his first public comments on the matter Sunday from Australia, where he had traveled for the G20 Summit. In the spirit of Obamacare, he answered by pretending Gruber had been some kind of forgettable, marginal player on Obamacare.

Obama never has to face the voters again, but the next 12 months will nonetheless be critical for his presidency. He will now be facing a hostile Congress. The only weapons he has to derail their ability to set the agenda are open defiance (which can work well if Republicans try something unpopular) and obstructionism (mostly through Democratic filibusters in the Senate, because the veto pen is more a tool of defiance).

As he enters this new phase, Obama would be better off storing up a reservoir of credibility. This is what it will take for him to to persuade and rally the country behind him against the Congress it just elected — and it might be necessary to salvage a Democratic Party brand that has seen better days. This controversy, therefore, although it came at a very fortunate time for Democratic candidates (i.e., not before the election), comes at a very bad time for Obama. His answer of burying his head in the same may not serve him well.

Senate 2016

Our own take on the 2016 presidential contest, as stated last week, is that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker begins with a slight edge as the best-positioned Republican candidate, and Democrats have no one credible to run except Hillary Clinton. But everyone is paying attention to that race — let us instead take a first look at just why the Republicans’ accomplishment in building a 53- or probably a 54-seat majority is so critical to their party’s continued national competitiveness. After all, a Republican could easily win the presidency in 2016 only to find his party out of power again in the Senate.

As we noted in this space over a year ago, Republicans could not afford to have a mediocre 2014, when the Senate map was skewed heavily in their favor, because the 2016 map (provided below under the Creative Commons license by Orser67) is heavily skewed toward the Democrats. It looks like this, with Republican-held seats in red and Democratic ones in blue:

Capture

Senate terms are six years long. Just like the Democrats were hard-pressed in 2014 to defend the ground they had gained in 2008, Republicans now become victims of their own success. In 2004 and 2010, they made large gains in the Senate Class that will be up for re-election in 2016. Those successes helped build their new majority, but now the bill comes due. Republicans and Democrats now reverse roles — the GOP must strive to keep ground that will not be easy to defend.

There are several recent examples of Senate elections in which a party either succeeded or failed in doing this. This election just concluded is one example of a party’s failure to hold newly conquered ground. In 2008, Democrats gained eight seats, only to lose eight (and probably a ninth in Louisiana) in 2014.

The 2000 election is perhaps a closer analogy, because it also happened to be a presidential year as a Democratic presidency was ending. In 1994, Republicans had picked up eight Senate seats and reclaimed the Senate majority they had lost in 1986. But in the next election of that class — the 2000 presidential election six years later — they lost four seats on net (losing six and gaining two). They had also lost a fifth seat because of the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., had allowed Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes to appoint Democrat Zell Miller as his replacement. After election night, the U.S. Senate chamber was tied at 50 each, giving Vice President Dick Cheney the tie-breaking vote. It was a majority so fragile that it only lasted a few months before a party-switch put Democrats in control.

America’s attention focused mostly on the presidential contest that year, for obvious reasons. But the six Republican-held seats that were lost that night are just as critical to understanding the Republican Party’s troubles in the late Clinton era. Republican incumbents lost in Delaware, Washington State, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri, where voters elected the popular but deceased Gov. Mel Carnahan, D, over Sen. John Ashcroft, R. In Florida, President Bush won narrowly, but Rep. Bill Nelson, D, picked up the open Senate seat left by the retiring Sen. Connie Mack, R. The net loss of four was really a loss of six, offset by Republican pickups in Nevada and Virginia.

Could something like this happen again in 2016? It most certainly could. Republicans will be defending 24 seats and the Democrats only ten. Worse, the seats the Democrats have to defend are mostly in solid Blue states, including New York, Vermont, Maryland, Connecticut, and California.

Republican chances: The GOP will have only two obvious Democratic targets on the 2016 Senate map — Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

  • Bennet is definitely vulnerable, upside down in his popularity, having only narrowly survived against a relatively weak opponent in 2010. The trick for Republicans will be in choosing the right candidate.
  • Reid is hearing footsteps from Gov. Brian Sandoval, R, whose eyes may only be diverted from Reid’s seat if he does the full Don Quixote and decides to run for president. Reid, whose political machine apparently broke down in the 2014 election, has said he’s running again. But it would surprise no one if he were to change his mind and quit.

Retirements or exceptional circumstances could conceivably help the GOP expand the map in 2016, but not much. The second-tier targets are already a pretty tough row to hoe. It’s not a good sign when Oregon and Washington State are the two next most promising targets.

Republican victories are not inconceivable in those states, but the party has not done well recently in either. Dino Rossi came relatively close in Washington in 2010, but the state has been a big disappointment for the GOP and Sen. Patty Murray, D, remains relatively popular. In Oregon, Ron Wyden is unlikely to face much trouble in any event, and at this early stage it seems his seat will probably be safe unless he retires.

After those two states, their best chance is almost certainly in California, and that only goes to show how tough this map really is. 

Democratic chances: The 2016 Senate elections will be a target-rich environment for Democrats.

The top-tier targets at the moment are senators who have done nothing wrong except win a seat in a difficult state. They all face a close race against any credible Democratic challenger:

  • Sens. Mark Kirk in Illinois is a survivor who has made it through too many close calls to count. But he has to win in Illinois. One possible challenger: Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee veteran representing a suburban district. The state’s gradually declining allegiance to Democrats (seen in the results in both 2012 and in 2014, in presidential, Senate and governor races) could prove Kirk’s saving grace, but it’s not something he can count on. To the annoyance of conservatives, Kirk will do his best to brandish his centrist credentials, just as he did for years when holding his old congressional seat in Lake County.
  • Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania has benefited somewhat from the beclowning of one top-shelf Democratic challenger — Attorney General Kathleen Kane. But he still faces what he has surely expected all along — a tough rematch against former Rep. Joe Sestak, D, whom he beat by two points in 2010. One interesting fact about Pennsylvania is that the state Democratic Party is surprisingly weak — even with the hugely unpopular Gov. Tom Corbett losing this year, they lost ground in the state legislature, and Corbett’s loss was not nearly as big as it should have been. Both the Pittsburgh area and the “Alabama in the middle” portion of the state in between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been trending more Republican in recent years. It is possible that the 2016 GOP nominee will spend a lot more time in Pennsylvania than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and that could change all of the calculations either way. 
  • The biggest danger for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, R, is probably a rematch against former Sen. Russ Feingold, D. Aside from him, the Democrats have no obvious candidate. Their inability to beat Gov. Scott Walker and the continuing decline of the state’s public employee unions under his tenure both suggest a state party with its best years just behind it. 

The second tier of the Democrats’ targets includes several relatively popular incumbents who may or may not draw top-shelf challenges.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio‘s seat is sure to become interesting, because he may or (more likely) may not run for re-election. Florida’s Democratic Party is one of America’s weakest, and this was demonstrated both in 2010 and in 2014, when no serious candidate for Senate or governor could be found aside from an ex-Republican choke-artist named Charlie Crist. Republicans are likely to keep Rubio’s seat if he runs for re-election; they should be slightly favored if he doesn’t.
  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., polls well in the Granite State for now — the question is whether Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, who had a bit of an unexpected scare in this year’s election, wants to make a go at it. She probably would not be the favorite even if she did. 
  • Sen. Richard Burr, R, has kept a low profile ever since he was first elected statewide in 2004. He won easily in 2010 against a weak opponent, but being low-profile is a double-edged sword — he has low disapproval ratings, but low approval ratings as well. The state Republican Party has strengthened in the last decade, but a high-quality challenger — including even perhaps soon-to-be-former-Sen. Kay Hagan, could pose a serious problem in the right kind of environment.

The third tier of Democratic targets includes the seat of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., should he abandon it, and Rob Portman in Ohio, who may well skate through on his personal popularity without any serious trouble. Also included are several lower-odds possibilities based on retirements or potential conservative primary challenges to GOP incumbents. Sen. Chuck Grassley, for example, remains immensely popular in Iowa, but he’s also getting older, and could potentially change his mind about retirement. 

As far as potential Tea Party challenges go, Lisa Murkowski‘s seat in Alaska comes immediately to mind. The most interesting seat, perhaps, is that of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He could either fall victim to a primary challenge or change his state intentions and decide to retire, in which case his seat moves to the top tier immediately — with the caveat that Democrats in the state still have a ridiculously thin bench. The option of bringing back former governor and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is probably smaller than it used to be, considering the additional baggage she has taken on.

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It should be obvious from all this that Senate Republicans are almost completely on defense in 2016 — and that’s not an easy situation in which to win. The Senate map for the next election is downright scary for them, and anything short of a loss of their majority would probably be a welcome outcome. They will not likely have the option of keeping Democrats busy in unexpected states, the way Democrats tried this year (unsuccessfully) in Kansas and South Dakota.

Of course, political environments change, for better and for worse. The numbers to remember here: two and eight. Two is the largest number of seats Republicans can reasonably gain, if any. Eight is the largest number they would reasonably likely lose.

The field is clearly tilted against Republicans. But the pressure to perform will also weigh heavily on the Democrats. They can’t afford a mediocre performance in 2016, because in 2018, the map looks like this (courtesy of info por favor):

Capture