In the latest episode of Political Wire's podcast, we spoke with Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling for an in-depth look at the 2014 midterm elections and the close battle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Here are five takeaways from the interview:
1. Republicans are successfully using ObamaCare to drag down vulnerable Senate Democrats: Already, at least two current Democratic seats (West Virginia and South Dakota) look to be firmly in the GOP column. If that holds up, Republicans would need only four more seats to retake the Senate. And they're dragging out the ObamaCare playbook on vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Those two senators have actually seen their approval plummet since the time of the government shutdown. Jensen noted that Republicans have put out ads trying to tie those Democrats to ObamaCare as early as possible: "I think that's the biggest reason we've seen these races shift in the Republican direction over the last two months, and it's the most savvy strategy." Indeed, polling shows that those two senators' approval ratings and ObamaCare approval numbers in those two states are almost the same.
2. Republicans' Tea Party problem isn't as bad this time as it was in 2010 and 2012: In the 2010 and 2012 elections, Democrats won tough Senate races in states such as Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado after Republicans nominated far-right, often Tea Party–aligned candidates. This time, however, Tea Party candidates such as Steve Stockman in Texas, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Matt Bevin in Kentucky are struggling to gain traction. And the GOP field is clear in Arkansas and Louisiana for establishment candidates Tom Cotton and Bill Cassidy, respectively. As a result, vulnerable Democrats may not be able to count as much this election cycle on Republicans to incur self-inflicted wounds. One place that may serve as an exception: Georgia, where a bunch of GOP candidates are trying to outflank one another on the right, and where Democrats have a strong candidate in Michelle Nunn, daughter of popular former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).
3. Conservative-launched proposals that effectively would allow discrimination against gays are quickly becoming a political loser for Republicans: Republican-backed legislation aiming to protect religious liberty in Arizona and Kansas has come under fire because critics say it would allow discrimination based on sexual orientation. With public acceptance of homosexuality and support for same-sex marriage on the rise, these sorts of bills are becoming politically toxic for Republicans, even within their party, Jensen said. In a sign that Republicans recognize this danger, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed her state's bill, and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also came out against it. Kansas' bill, meanwhile, looks unlikely to survive. Upcoming polling data from Jensen and crew suggest that 70 percent of Arizonans support the veto decision. "I think it definitely is very helpful for Republicans that this general cause is sort of dying off," he said.
4. The government shutdown, once a political boon to Democrats, is little more than a memory now: Not only did their Republican counterparts in Congress take a beating in the polls, but the Democrats also leveraged the incident to raise money and recruit strong candidates for House races, Jensen said. Months removed from that, the situation looks much different, as Republicans have regained some of their lost momentum thanks to the shaky ObamaCare insurance exchange rollout. So the government shutdown, which once stood to benefit Democrats greatly, has lost much of its political importance. "In terms of being something that people are going to vote on, we don't see that happening," Jensen said.
5. As of now, the fight between Democrats and Republicans for control of the Senate looks like a toss-up: With Republicans looking in good shape in at least two Senate races, running competitively in several others, and finding candidates to run in states like Colorado and Virginia, Republicans have a 50–50 shot of netting the minimum six seats needed to retake the upper chamber, Jensen said. But in politics, eight months is an eternity, he noted. For example, Democrats' probability of retaining the Senate looked good after the government shutdown but fell after the rocky rollout of the ObamaCare insurance exchanges. "We've certainly seen over past four or five months that things can shift pretty fast in one direction or the other," Jensen said. The more that Democrats can deflect media attention away from ObamaCare and onto pocketbook issues such as the minimum wage, the better off they'll be, Jensen said.
Listen to the whole interview here: