WASHINGTON - America's unofficial end of summer this week marked the unofficial beginning of the campaign that may give Republicans control of the Senate, an outcome that could utterly close down President Barack Obama's legislative agenda in his final two years in the White House. Republicans already have an unassailable majority in the House of Representatives.
After Monday's Labor Day holiday, there are just under nine weeks until voters decide on all 435 House seats, 36 of 100 in the Senate and governors in 36 states and three U.S. territories. The Nov. 4 vote is called a midterm election because it falls halfway through a president's four years in office. The vote will take place in a political climate that is deadlocked in partisanship worse than at any time in modern American history.
There is a multitude of reasons, political experts believe, that Republicans are likely to take control in the Senate.
First, the party that holds the White House in a second presidential term historically does poorly in that midterm election. Compounding that, Republicans, especially the most energized and deeply conservative wing of the party, are far more likely than Democrat voters to turn out on Election Day.
Second, Obama's approval ratings are bouncing around in the low 40s and could go even lower given increasing dissatisfaction over his handling of foreign policy — Russian meddling in Ukraine and the sudden takeover of much of northern and western Iraq by fundamentalist Sunni Muslim fighters of the group that calls itself the Islamic state and also controls large swaths in Syria. Obama's slumping support has caused Democratic candidates in some of the most important races to distance themselves from him on the campaign trail. Republicans are hitting Democrats hard over domestic issues as well, trying to paint them as members of the party that voted into law the U.S. health care overhaul known as Obamacare. They also are blasting away over the immigration issue and claim Obama's plans to sidestep Congress but using his executive powers is an unlawful power grab. Obama has resorted to using executive orders on many issues that never get voted out of the Republican-controlled house.
Finally, Republicans only need a net gain of six seats to capture a 51-49 Senate majority. Three of those pickups are seen as a given in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia where incumbent Democrats are not seeking re-election. Democrat incumbents in three southern states that Obama did not carry in 2012 are facing stiff challenges. And experts say Democrat incumbents in three Northern states and one in the Mountain West — previously seen as safe — could fall to robust Republican challenges.
The math for Republicans could be upended by voters in Kentucky where a major upset is possible. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a tight race there with Democrat state Attorney General Alison Lundergan Grimes. The same could be in store for Georgia Republicans. Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of highly popular former Sen. Sam Nunn, is running slightly ahead of Republican businessman David Perdue. They are in the chase for the seat of retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.
In Kansas, Chad Taylor, a Democrat, withdrew from the race against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. His seat was seen as safe given that Taylor and independent candidate Greg Orman were expected to split the Democrat, independent and moderate Republican vote. Taylor's unexplained resignation from the race is sure to boost Orman's chances against the very conservative Roberts. Kansas has not elected a Democrat senator since 1932.
While voter approval of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, is at all-time lows, Republicans are largely expected to return House incumbents for two more years and could pick up even more seats now held by Democrats. An important reason is that parties controlling state legislatures carve out districts to maximize their political gain, resulting that most distracts are solidly Republican or Democratic. Americans tend to be less critical of their own representatives than of Congress as a whole.
According to Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball blog at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, Republicans most likely will gain between six and seven Senate seats and six or so House members. Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report say he thinks Republican chances are about 60 per cent for picking up the at least six seats needed to control the Senate. Stuart Rothenberg's Rothenberg Political Report also gives Republicans a better than even shot at the majority.
Part of the reason things are looking so good for Republicans derives from party leadership's drive to keep extreme right-wingers off the ballot. Many politics watchers believe Republicans could have taken the Senate four years ago were it not for extremists who were chosen as the party's candidates in primary election contests. This time around the party fought vigorously to protect mainline Republican incumbents from primary challenges by extreme right-wingers or to keep them off the ballot in states with open seats. That effort somewhat diminished the power of the tea party faction of the party. Such candidates, while the darlings of low tax, small government groups that came to life with Obama's election, often fared poorly in general elections.
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