WASHINGTON, January 6, 2014 — America’s congressional elections have turned into seesaw affairs. In the last 10 years, each biennial general election has produced pronounced wins for either Republicans or Democrats.
The president’s party often suffers congressional losses in mid-term elections; that’s because officials elected on the president’s coattails must now stand on their own. In some cases, a majority party’s losses are acute; political scientists refer to these elections as “waves.” Not all waves are mid-terms, though, and not all mid-terms are waves.
In 2004, Republicans made gains in both the House and Senate and re-elected their standard bearer, President George W. Bush. In 2006, Democrats took back both the House and the Senate and ended any chance that Bush could achieve his second-term policy agenda. Democrats made further gains in 2008, behind the strong performance of President Barack Obama. In 2010, the pendulum swung back, with Republicans gaining six Senate seats and 63 House seats. In 2012, Democrats recouped some of their losses, gaining nine House seats and defeating strong Republican Senate candidates even in states that Mitt Romney carried.
While political scientists might not classify the 2004 and 2012 elections as wave elections, American voters have decisively favored either Democrats or Republicans in each cycle. The boom-and-bust cycle leads political observers to wonder whether voters, despite saying that Washington is broken, want it any other way.
What does this portend for the 2014 mid-term elections? Democrats hope that they can retake the House by picking up 17 congressional seats, and protect the Senate from takeover by Republicans who need six additional seats to reach a majority. Republicans think that they can take those six Senate seats and expand their majority in the House.
There’s little doubt that the Republicans have the edge now. They stand to gain if the pattern of seesawing seen in the last 10 years continues. Before the government shutdown began in September, Republicans had successfully taken seats held by Democrats in several special elections since November 2012; Democrats took none.
But the government shutdown also demonstrated how quickly the electorate can turn. With the public placing the blame for the shutdown squarely on the GOP, Democrats successfully took a Republican-held seat in a Florida special election, and won every contested state-wide office in Virginia in November 2013.
The failures of the Obamacare rollout, made worse by the president’s lie about people keeping their healthcare plans if they wanted to, has moved the electorate back to the GOP. Special elections for legislative seats in California and Massachusetts that should have been romps for Democrats have turned into close contests. A Republican won a traditionally Democratic seat in Kentucky last month. Republicans continue to keep the House “generic ballot” polling close,, and are primed to make Senate pickups in several red states that Romney carried comfortably. Even Senate seats that seemed marginal a month ago — like those in Iowa and Colorado — now look like potential pickup opportunities for the GOP.
The lesson, however, is to never get comfortable. The election is more than 10 months away, an eternity in politics. And Republicans are not shy about making things harder on themselves. Already, Republican primary candidates have accused each other of inadequate conservative credentials for such crimes such as voting to reopen the government.
Conservative activists are criticizing the recent Ryan-Murray budget deal, calling it a betrayal. Some House Republicans are even talking about impeaching Attorney General Eric Holder, a move that would go nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate. These political missteps, by themselves, may not sink GOP efforts next fall, but they distract attention from recent Democratic political troubles. Instead of making the election a referendum on the president and the Democratic leadership, the distractions force voters to consider making a choice between policy agendas — a much harder position for GOP candidates to be in.
The broader point is that the electorate is both sensitive to changing narratives and willing to reward or punish either party at the ballot box. There is no reason to think November 2014 will be any different. If Republicans hope to enjoy their second mid-term wave next fall, they should avoid distractions, focus on messaging that isn’t seen as wasteful or unnecessary and simply force Democrats to run on their record, as it stands. In sum, it’s time to lay low.
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