The new year brings with it high expectations for Republicans in the midterm elections. Historically, second-term incumbent presidents see their party lose a significant number of seats in both the House and Senate. On George W. Bush's watch in 2006, the GOP lost control of both chambers, dropping 30 House seats and six Senate seats. Bill Clinton fared a little better in 1998, thanks to the popular backlash against Republicans for the impeachment push the prior year, with Democrats actually picking up five seats in the House and getting a draw in the Senate. Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in history, lost eight seats in the Senate in 1986. Dwight D. Eisenhower, another popular Republican, lost 12 Senate seats in the 1958 midterms.
Now, no one in the GOP thinks that they can pull off a '58-style shellacking in November. But they don't need to. All Republicans need to flip the Senate is six seats, a replay of the 2006 election, which took place as Bush's approval ratings cratered. The floundering federal response to Hurricane Katrina, spreading chaos in Iraq, and scandals involving Republicans on Capitol Hill combined to create a poisonous political climate that stripped Bush of his legislative support. In retrospect, it's remarkable that Republicans managed to keep the losses from being even worse.
Here in 2014, while the specific issues differ from 2006, President Obama finds himself in a similar position as his predecessor did. The terrible rollout of ObamaCare has exposed rampant incompetence in the Obama administration, which even this week still claims to be unable to produce demographic information from their own enrollment systems. Politifact declared Obama's health-care mantra "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan" as the Lie of the Year for 2013. Obama's personal quality ratings, which kept him afloat for most of his presidency, have gone underwater over the last year. With the NSA controversy playing especially badly among the younger voters who normally fuel the activist Democratic base, 2014 looks like a disaster in waiting for Democrats.
Election analyst Larry Sabato agrees. Writing for Politico on Monday, Sabato declared that "Republicans could win it all," and that "this year's Senate slate strongly favors the Republicans."
The only thing stopping Republicans from a huge win is Republicans.
Across the country, Republicans incumbents are facing intramural challenges. John Cornyn in Texas, who has a solidly conservative voting record but whose leadership at the NRSC has long rubbed grassroots organizations the wrong way, will face off against Rep. Steve Stockman in a primary. The GOP leader in the upper chamber, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has a Tea Party challenger in Kentucky. The Senate Conservatives Fund is actively targeting Republican incumbents, while Tea Party activists — the core of the grassroots that the GOP has to inspire — seem more intent on flushing out the establishment than on taking seats away from Democrats.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sees the same danger. In an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley, the potential presidential contender warned activists that, while their energy and frustration are appreciated, their target selection is way off. Those unhappy with budget compromises need to aim at Senate Democrats rather than sitting Republicans, Walker explained, so that Republicans gain rather than lose leverage. "[G]o to Louisiana or go to Arkansas or go to North Carolina or Alaska, where there are senators facing real elections as Democrats," Walker advised, "and go and help in those elections and elect new Republicans to come because a year from now, things will be much different if Republicans hold the United States Senate."
That's good advice. Thanks to Harry Reid's dismantling of the filibuster, just standing pat in the Senate for the final two years of Obama's presidency won't be enough for Republicans. The GOP needs the majority to force Obama into compromises on appointments as well as to control the floor agenda on legislation. That will still put Republicans in opposition to Obama, but they can set the table themselves in Congress and force Obama to deal with them directly, rather than have Reid running interference. The GOP will also need to take as many Senate seats in 2014, because the 2016 class of the Senate will be tougher on Republicans.
This isn't to say that the grassroots activists have no legitimate reasons for their anger with Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, or to suggest that primary challenges are a bad practice. In 2014, though, the opportunity to finally sideline Reid and take command of Capitol Hill is too good to pass up. This last chance to use both chambers of Congress to slow down the Obama administration should have the Tea Party pointing their rhetorical and activist guns outward rather than inward.