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The 2014 Vote

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Senate Democrats Sense the Ground Shifting Beneath Them

October 29th 2014

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Democrats’ path to holding their Senate majority has narrowed, with Republicans pulling ahead in critical states and on the cusp of upsets in several others.

Even some within the party are starting to say their midterm prognosis isn’t good.

“Democrats are, as we’ve talked about before, going to have a bad Election Day, no matter how you slice it,” former White House press secretary Jay Carney told CNN on Tuesday evening.

With wins in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana all but certain, the GOP feels increasingly optimistic about its chances of flipping Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana, and nabbing at least one of the two most competitive swing states, Iowa and Colorado. Now, the party is eyeing tightening races in New Hampshire and North Carolina —races Republicans promised all along would be competitive in the end — as signs a GOP wave is building, giving it more options in its pursuit of Senate control.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said while he’s still optimistic in North Carolina, Republicans appear to be surging overall.

“In North Carolina, I think the Republicans see the seat slipping away, but in other parts of the country I think they feel they have momentum on their side and they’re going in for the kill,” he told The Hill.

Manley said he still thinks Democrats will be able to “eke it out” in the final week before the midterms. But he acknowledged that New Hampshire and North Carolina are must-wins for the party — and that their tightening is a concern.

“I’m not sure [Democrats] can” lose either one and still control the Senate, Manley said.

Republicans say current polling mirrors 2006, a bad midterm cycle for their own party, when Democrats picked up six seats in the Senate. They note that every Republican incumbent polling below 48 percent support at this point in the cycle that year lost.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll out Tuesday underscores the GOP’s advantage nationally. Across nine states with competitive Senate races, voters prefer Republicans over Democrats in a generic House match-up, 57 to 39 percent.

That poll also showed a majority of people say the government’s ability to tackle big problems has declined — and by 3 to 1, they blame President Obama and Democrats rather than Republicans in Congress.

“In 2014, history seems to be repeating itself,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) is the lone Democratic incumbent above 45 percent. However, polling has shown the race consistently tightening over the past month, and Republican Scott Brown actually held a lead of 1 percentage point over Shaheen in a New England College survey out this weekend.

Democrats are still confident in her ability to pull out a win.

“Everything that we’ve been saying still holds true: People don’t trust [Brown], people don’t believe his motives. He’s got a field program that’s a skeleton of what ours is,” a Shaheen campaign adviser said. “All those things matter in a close race.”

Still, the fact that the race remains so tight suggests Democrats who have run strong campaigns could ultimately succumb to an increasingly difficult national climate.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that the Democratic message of populist economic policies is being overshadowed by current events, which are keeping Democrats on defense.

“What happens in these midterms is, typically when the president’s unpopular, you become a victim of events,” he said. “The Democrats had a national strategy of talking about income inequality and minimum wage and reproductive rights, but when there are multiple consecutive crises, there’s no media oxygen for those issues.”

New Hampshire and North Carolina’s late tightening suggest that’s exactly what’s going on for Democrats this cycle. Brown has been hitting Shaheen relentlessly on national security, starting with the emergence of the border crisis in early August on through the past few months of national security threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the spread of Ebola.

Jim Merrill, who led Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire campaign in his 2008 and 2012 bids for the White House, said that national security has defined the race in the final weeks — and that’s good for Brown.

“Not one person on our side is taking it for granted, but I think the Democrats are paying the price for taking it for granted many months ago,” he said.

The race has big implications for the Senate map.

“If we’re winning in New Hampshire next Tuesday, then there’s no question, we’re taking the Senate,” Merrill added

Democrats note that they’re still on offense in three states: Kentucky, Georgia and Kansas.

They’re less bullish on Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s chances of taking down Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And in Kansas, though polling has shown independent Greg Orman running even with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Republicans believe that the state’s deep-red tint will ultimately be too much for Orman to overcome.

Georgia remains a bright spot for Democrats, but with the race looking increasingly likely to head to a three-month runoff, neither party is willing to predict victory there yet.

With none of those three races quite looking clear for Democrats, the path to holding on to 51 seats in the upper chamber remains murky as well.

But Tom Ingram, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), said while the atmosphere favors Republicans, both parties should be cautious.

“The numbers give the Republicans opportunity for a little more optimism,” he said. “But it’s a very unpredictable environment out there. There’s a lot of anti-incumbency in the air, and there are probably going to be some surprises on both sides.”

Democrats insist they’re running strong in the final week, and say they’ll continue to draw a contrast between their incumbents and flawed Republican challengers.

“Democrats are well positioned to hold the majority because we’re running smarter campaigns with better candidates. The resilience of Jeanne Shaheen and Kay Hagan is matched only by Speaker [Tom] Tillis’s terrible record in the North Carolina statehouse and Scott Brown’s passion for Wall Street Bankers,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.

Asked whether the party could hold the Senate if it lost either seat, Barasky dismissed the speculation.

“We’re not going to lose either state, so that’s a silly question,” he said.

But even with the current outlook, Kondik said, Democrats’ fortunes look grim.

“If they’re not pulling an upset in one of these other places, then they need to pull a rabbit out of a hat in some states where they look like they’re behind,” he said.

Alexandra Jaffe writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.

 


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