After a very successful senatorial election six years ago, many of the freshmen senators elected in that cycle are at risk this year. The previous races were during a presidential election year with a popular and charismatic outsider promising change in Washington. This year these new senators face not only an election without a presidential race to attract voters, but also a president whose popularity is declining.
Welcome to 1986.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan took the White House in a sweeping victory over Jimmy Carter whose approval rating has dropped to 35%. The Republicans also gained 12 seats to take control of the Senate for the first time since 1952. Four of the new Republican senators gained seats in the formerly Democratic Solid South - including Jeremiah Denton in Alabama, Paula Hawkins in Florida, Mack Mattingly in Georgia, and John East in North Carolina.
Not only that, but some of the most famous Democratic senators fell to upstart Republican challengers, as well - including Warren Magnusen in Washington, Frank Church in Idaho, George McGovern in South Dakota, Gaylord Nelson in Wisconsin, and Birch Bayh in Indiana. And back to the South, Herman Talmadge in Georgia.
When 1986 rolled around and these freshmen GOP senators were up for reelection, not only did they not have a presidential groundswell to assist them, Reagan's approval numbers were declining. The 1984 landslide was political history as were the Los Angeles Olympics and "Morning in America". Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Central America were taking their toll on Reagan's patina and Iran-Contra was about to break.
Thus, in the 1986 election the Democrats gained 8 seats - 9 gains and 1 loss - and retook the Senate from the Republicans. Seven of those were from among the 12 GOP freshmen senators - all 4 Southern seats which had flipped in 1980 plus Andrews in North Dakota, Abdnor in South Dakota, and Gordon in Washington.
Fast forward 28 years and we are in a similar political environment. Prior to the 2008 election, the Democrats had a slim majority in the Senate with the support of two independents to give them 51 to 49. The unpopularity of the Bush administration was worse than Carter's at 30%. The appeal of Barack Obama combined with the economic meltdown produced a Democratic wave with 8 takeovers in the Senate - some of them in very red territory. The gains were - Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Udall in Colorado, Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Tom Udall in New Mexico, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Jeff Merkley in Oregon, and Mark Warner in Virginia.
Granted, senatorial elections are impacted by state issues and state politics; yet, national politics have come to play a greater part since 1986. Although senatorial elections are not retention votes for the president, the public view of Obama and Democratic policies in general in Congress does have an increasingly significant role given the highly polarized nature of the American political sphere today.
Nearly every two-term president and two-term administration - such as Kennedy-Johnson or Nixon-Ford - have seen congressional losses in the second midterm. Since WWII, rarely have losses been small - the 1998 election being the only exception. Eisenhower 1958 - Dem + 49 House, Dem +15 Senate; Johnson 1966 - GOP + 47 House, GOP + 3 Senate; Ford 1974 - Dem + 49 House, Dem + 4 Senate; Reagan 1986 - Dem + 5 House, Dem + 8 Senate; Clinton 1998 - GOP -4 House, GOP even Senate; Bush 2006 - Dem +31 House, Dem + 6 Senate.
In each of the above second midterms there were national issues that influenced the vote in addition to pattern of voter weariness with a two-term administration. Recession and cold war in 1958, Vietnam and urban unrest in 1966, Watergate in 1974, cold war conflicts in 1986, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006. Despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the humming economy of 1998 trumped any presidential shenanigans in the voters' eyes.
Not only are Democrats facing the ongoing Afghan conflict under the Obama administration, but an economy that has, at best, a sputtering recovery. Regardless of Obamacare or gay marriage or whatever, world conflicts and the poor economy will weigh heavily on Democratic senate candidates - especially the freshman class of 2008. In addition, Democrats will not have the benefit of presidential-year turnout which favors Democrats while lower turnout favors Republicans.
If the Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2015, then the Obama administration will have little chance of implementing even a fraction of its policy goals. Furthermore, judicial nominations up to and including the Supreme Court will grind to a halt unless Obama picks extremely conservative judges. One would think that the Obama administration would do all it could to ensure that such an eventuality would not come to pass, but this does not seem to be the case.
Unless there is a significant improvement in the economy or a major international settlement during the next six months, political history suggests a serious defeat for the party of the president. Barring those, is there any possibility of domestic legislation that can benefit the Democrats?
Otherwise, a Republican gain of 8 Senators and 22 Representatives is a distinct possibility.
Is it worth it?
Errata - In the poll below -
The numbers below 'Even" should be 'Lose 1' then 'Lose 2'.
I have no idea how it turned out the way it did.
Nor can it be corrected in the poll box.