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Are the Democrats doomed?

By
March 18, 2014 |

This year was always going to be a difficult one for Democrats, as they battle to keep their five-seat majority in the Senate. But in recent months, the political landscape has grown bleaker.

Let’s start with the basics: Democrats have more seats at risk this year than Republicans do. Of the 36 Senate seats up for election (including three midterm vacancies), 21 are held by Democrats. And seven of those Democratic seats are in Republican-leaning “red states” that Mitt Romney won in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

The stakes are enormous. If Republicans take control of the Senate and keep the House of Representatives, they’ll be able to pass parts of their conservative agenda that have been blocked until now. President Obama will still have veto power, but he’ll have to spend his last two years in office stuck on defense.

Since the presidential election of 2012, the country’s mood has remained sour. The sluggish economic recovery has convinced most Americans that we’re still stuck in a recession, no matter what the economists say. Obama’s job approval has slumped to record lows, thanks largely to the disastrous launch of his healthcare plan. That makes 2014 a bad year to be an incumbent — especially a Democratic incumbent.

Compounding Democrats’ worries, Republicans are having a good year recruiting top-tier Senate candidates in both blue and red states. In Colorado, GOP Rep. Cory Gardner has turned Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s once-expected re-election into a race to watch. In New Hampshire, former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., moved north last week and announced his desire to become Sen. Scott Brown, R-N.H.

Charlie Cook, dean of Washington’s congressional election forecasters, pronounced the Democrats’ challenges “grisly.”

And the mood wasn’t improved by the victory last week of Republican David Jolly, who beat Democrat Alex Sink in a special election in Florida’s Gulf Coast region for a vacant seat in the House of Representatives.

In Florida, Democrats thought they had a strong chance; Obama had carried the district narrowly in 2012, and Sink was a practiced campaigner. The Democratic campaign even outspent the GOP. But the untested Republican candidate won by almost 2 percent.

What happened? Democratic voters didn’t show up. Only 53 percent as many ballots were cast in the district last week as in the presidential election of 2012. Among those voters, Sink’s pollster, Geoff Garin, estimated that Republicans had a 13 percent advantage in turnout — meaning his candidate did well by keeping the race close at all.

The question, of course, is why so many Republicans turned out and why so few Democrats did. The answer among strategists on both sides was: Obamacare. But not in the sense that the healthcare law is so unpopular that Democrats are doomed; in fact, as more people sign up for health coverage, polls suggest that Obamacare is a little less toxic now than it was last fall.

Instead, the problem is that a high-decibel debate over Obamacare has the effect of prompting conservatives to come out and vote, but not liberals. “The (Affordable Care Act) is an energizing issue for Republicans,” Garin noted; it doesn’t produce the same response among Democrats.

Can Democrats change that? Some, like former Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala, argue that Democratic candidates need to stop being apologetic about the program’s flaws and go on the offensive, accusing Republicans of trying to rob voters of the law’s protections. But others, including strategist Mark Mellman, are skeptical. “I don’t think it’s a particularly strong mobilizing issue,” Mellman told me.

Democrats will try to broaden the debate beyond Obamacare and the pace of economic growth to focus on issues of fairness: a higher minimum wage, stronger overtime pay regulations, pay equity for women. If Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., wins his tough race for re-election in increasingly conservative Arkansas, for example, it may be thanks to a state minimum wage initiative that could mobilize Democratic voters there.

The Democrats will keep Obama away from Senate candidates in red states, but expect former President Clinton to do plenty of campaigning in the heartland, where he’s popular among independents as well as Democrats.

They’ll also mount an unprecedented $60-million field operation designed to find Democratic voters and prod them to vote. That part of the campaign, modeled on Obama’s data-heavy operation in 2012, is the initiative that has political professionals most intrigued, since it’s never before been attempted at that scale in a midterm election.

And, if all else fails, the Democrats will hope that Republicans make the same mistake they made in Senate elections in 2010 and 2012, nominating far-right tea party candidates who cost them elections they might otherwise have won. But praying for flawed opponents is a weak reed on which to rest a strategy.

Cook’s current projection is that Republicans are likely to gain between four and six seats in November — and six is exactly the number the GOP needs to win a majority in the Senate. Unless the economy and Obamacare look better to voters seven months from now, don’t be surprised to see the GOP do even better than that.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 14 comments

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  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 6:18 am

    Historically speaking, Democrats have a poor showing at the polls. Ordinarily I would shrug this off as wishful thinking and frankly, impossible. But since the events in AZ and KS were only mildly protested by the US-wide voting collective, it appears the Republicans could indeed pull this off. That alone should concern Americans, but it obviously does not. That is too bad for my side, really awful for our country.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • DanielMarch 18, 2014 - 7:02 am

    It's Obamacare or their seat, it's their choice.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • BettyWMarch 18, 2014 - 8:15 am

    CD - Let's be honest. Most of the US-wide voting collective don't know what happened in AZ or KS; that's why they're not concerned. We happen to be on different sides of the concern, but at least we know what's going on in the world.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 8:19 am

    BettyW, my concern is not whether you're aware, but more so if you support that legislation?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 8:39 am

    BettyW?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 9:37 am

    BettyW, your silence is deafening.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Salty DogMarch 18, 2014 - 10:51 am

    CD: maybe BettyW has a job she has to go to to make enough money to pay taxes for all the programs you support.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 11:55 am

    Salty Dog, yeah like your education get back to class!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • BettyWMarch 18, 2014 - 4:17 pm

    CD - To be honest, I haven't had a chance to read the bill yet, so I'm only going on what newspapers have written about it. If it is as presented by the Associated Press, where discrimination is allowed against gays because of religious beliefs, I'm not sure how I feel about it. If someone comes into my store without shoes and a shirt, I have the right to deny that person service. I can go so far as to ask them to leave. If my religious convictions are such that I strongly don't believe in gay marriage, why should I have to provide a service to them? Am I the only store, bakery, florist in the area who can provide that service, or are the gays using their bully pulpit to force me to acknowledge and approve of their "marriage"? And, if I understand the bill a bit further, is the government intervening and suing me for my beliefs? That doesn't seem fair.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksMarch 18, 2014 - 4:51 pm

    BettyW, I appreciate your honesty. Please remember we are talking about Constitutional law. The problem is AZ still discriminates. The law would have allowed denial of service to anyone due to your religious beliefs and that is legal discrimination. I think you and I can agree that there are those that would extrapolate that mandate into a much broader interpretation. My question is why would any business turn away a profit? Do you really care if someone is gay? How does that affect your life in the slightest? How would you feel if you walked into a business owned by a gay person and they turned you away not because you're straight, but because you went to church? What if black-owned business began turning away whites and visa-versa? Can you say riots in the streets? I'm afraid that law would have taken us back into the dark ages and we have come too far for that now.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • PornacMarch 18, 2014 - 7:10 am

    Democrats, you are forgiven, repent now.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Mike KirchubelMarch 18, 2014 - 10:30 am

    As CD said, there is typically a small turnout by Dems in the minor elections. They are too busy working and raising their families. All the repubs have to do is set their cable boxes to record Fox for the half hour they're gone, gas up the Buick, and try to remember how to get back home from the corner polling station. Look for more democratic voters this November when it counts. Looking at the Repub side, what are they offering? What is their platform, besides No, Nada, Nothing, shut down the government, and repeal healthcare? If voters are looking for improvement, it certainly isn't coming from the black hole on the right. The only threat to Dems would be from rational conservatives with some sort of legitimate, sensible plan. But they won't survive their primaries against the fanatic, fringe-hugging, tea drinkers.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Salty DogMarch 18, 2014 - 10:57 am

    Mike: maybe the Republicans have to record fox news because they do not have time to comment all the time they are the ones working paying all the taxes to pay for all of programs you support. Democrats like you can sit around all day in front of the tv watching ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC, and using your phone to comment on this blog

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  • Danny BuntinMarch 18, 2014 - 8:03 pm

    Average age of Fox viewers is somewhere around 68. They are not working, just collecting and trying their darnedest to make sure the programs they collect on, stay put. You know, back when you could get a pension, when they belonged to unions.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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