When the Republicans kept their majority in the U.S. House last November, the consensus was that the party would have no trouble winning again in 2014. Almost all the freshmen who won in the GOP tidal wave of 2010 made it through their first re-election campaign (often the hardest), and without Barack Obama on the ballot in 2014, the electorate would likely be older, whiter, and more conservative.
The actions of the Republican House in shutting down the federal government and threatening to default on the national debt unless the Obama administration makes unprecedented concessions (like defunding Obamacare) have some pundits re-evaluating the Democrats’ chances next year. In a Quinnipiac poll released last week, “voters pick a generic Democrat over a generic Republican candidate 43 - 34 percent, the widest Democratic margin measured so far.” And Rep. Steve Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that “GOP shutdown shenanigans were giving Dems a big recruiting boost, by prompting reluctant Dem candidates to express renewed interest in running in very tough GOP-held districts.”
So far, I put more stock in the skeptics like Nate Cohn, who claims that the Democrats are “not on-track to make the most of the potentially competitive districts.”
One reason for my skepticism is the topic of yesterday’s post, which is the near-disappearance of the moderate and conservative wings of the Democratic Party (following the purging of liberals and moderates in the Republican Party). In order to raise the odds of capturing enough seats to take back the House, the Democrats will need some conservative candidates capable of winning in districts that voted for Mitt Romney. In some cases, the most electable Democrats would be anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage. Ideal candidates may include Republicans persuaded to switch parties—not because they’ve suddenly renounced conservative views, but because they disagree with Tea Party tactics on achieving conservative goals.
But can such candidates survive Democratic primaries? And if they’re not able to risk personal fortunes on their campaigns, can they raise enough money to be competitive against Republican incumbents? (“Last year, House candidates had to raise an average of $650,000 to finance their campaigns,” writes Duke University’s Nicholas Carnes in the Bangor Daily News’s Research Shows blog, and it’s likely to take much more in the handful of most competitive races next year.) It’s a given that Democratic challengers will need to get out-of-state contributions, but will New Yorkers and Californians give to “blue dog” Democrats?
Even if conservative Democrats get past their primaries and make it to Election Day with money to spare, they’re still salmon swimming upstream. No matter what generic polls like Quinnipiac’s say, voters are increasingly resistant to switching parties from one election to the next. Nate Silver wrote on “the sharp decrease in ticket-splitting,” last year; there won’t be a presidential race on the ballot in 2014, but I still wouldn’t bet on large numbers of voters choosing Republicans for state and local offices but sending a Democrat to Congress. No matter how conservative the Democratic challenger, just about every Republican incumbent will run commercials charging the Democrat with being too close to the president. (Imagine all the ads in which the face of the Democrat will morph into Obama’s.) In those cases, today’s “generic” lead for the Democrats could vanish quickly.
Democratic challengers are also likely to get hammered with questions about whether they’d vote for an increase in the national debt the next time we hit the ceiling. A Fox News poll suggests that the popular answer nationwide (which means wildly popular in Republican-held districts) would be to grandstand against an increase and trigger a repeat of the same crisis we’re experiencing this year. Responsible Democratic candidates may well go down to defeat on this issue; irresponsible ones might win, but we’d be no closer to a functional government than we are now.
Logo from the Blue Dog Coalition, which includes 15 of the 200 Democrats in the U.S. House.