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5 things you need to know about the 2014 midterm elections

February 15, 2014, at 9:17 AM

In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we chatted with Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report to get up to speed on the 2014 midterm election landscape.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Incumbency is not the asset it once was: For the longest time, lawmakers mostly helped themselves when they touted their experience and stature in Washington. But a new Battleground Poll shows that a majority of Americans are willing to toss out their own member of Congress. Voters are simply disgusted with Washington, Walter said, so it's not wise for congressional incumbents to run as Washington insiders. "Those numbers are a repudiation of the work — or better to say the lack of work — getting done in Washington." All that said, so few districts are competitive now that few incumbents are in serious danger of falling victim of their own incumbency, at least this cycle.

2. More voters are becoming independents, not because they disagree with both parties, but because they're ashamed of the parties: The growth in the fraction of voters who identify as independents shouldn't lead people to conclude that Americans are losing their partisanship. Polling data suggests that even as independent affiliation has risen, most of those independents still lean toward one party. Walter said only about 10 percent of Americans don't lean to either party. Walter described these leaners' thoughts: "These two parties are an embarrassment. They can't get their act together in Washington," and until the parties do that, the leaners may ditch their party while still voting the party line.

3. Establishment Republicans may struggle to stop tea party primary challengers: As this GOP civil war continues, establishment Republicans are showing signs of fighting back, with some of them joining Democrats to pass a clean debt-ceiling hike. But that doesn't mean that establishment Republicans who face re-election can breathe easy. The threat of tea party primary challengers is real, and these candidates benefit in primaries because the staunchest conservatives are most likely to turn out. Establishment groups such as the Chamber of Commerce could step into primary fights to mobilize mainstream conservatives, Walter said. But at the end of the day the primaries' outcomes rest with the voters. That leaves the GOP establishment in an uneasy position: "There's just not all that much they can do."

4. Democrats may officially be outraising Republicans: But outside groups will help the GOP make up the difference: House Democrats' campaign arm is outraising its GOP counterpart, $53 million to $37 million. But those number fail to take into account the edge that GOP-aligned super PACs and interests have over Democratic-aligned organizations, Walter said. Groups like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity are already pouring millions of dollars into efforts to defeat Democrats, Walter noted: "I think we'll see that Republican super PACs or [GOP-aligned] special interest groups will help even the playing field in terms of money, or they will provide Republicans with the advantage."

5. As of now, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to pick up seats: On the surface, the political landscape favors Republicans going into November. Turnout will likely favor GOP-leaning groups like white and older voters, as is usually the case in non-presidential years. Also Obama's approval numbers are weak. As it is, Democrats already face a daunting map. They're defending more Senate seats than Republicans, and most districts in the GOP-controlled House aren't competitive anymore. Still, there's a long way to go until November. The GOP's primary victors, the quality of both parties' general-election candidates, Obama's approval numbers and key policy developments could all tweak the landscape, Walter said.

Listen to the entire conversation here:

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