Just How Doomed Are Congressional Democrats? Pretty Doomed

Retaking the House has long looked out of reach, but now there's a real possibility the party could lose the Senate, too.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

At this point, eight months before the November 4 election, it’s hard to see a lot of good news for congressional Democrats.

No matter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Republicans appear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cataclysmic event for Democrats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the majority.

What’s changed is that Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in the Senate is looking increasingly tenuous. There are now at least 10, and potentially as many as 13, Democratic-held seats in jeopardy. By contrast, only two GOP seats are in any meaningful danger, and that number hasn’t changed in six months.

Things are starting to look grisly for Senate Democrats. President Obama’s approval ratings average 41 percent, basically where President George W. Bush’s poll numbers were at this point before his own disastrous 2006 second-term, midterm election. And the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative and policy achievement, is now even more unpopular than it was in October and November of 2010, when Democrats lost 63 seats, control of the House, and a half-dozen Senate seats. It doesn’t help that midterm electorates tend to be older and whiter than in presidential elections. Obama’s current job-approval ratings are also worse than they were in October and November of 2010.

The two most likely legislative land mines for Republicans to step on between now and Election Day have been defused: The government is now funded, and Congress won’t need to lift the debt ceiling between now and November. As a result, it is not clear where the kind of break that Democrats need could emerge.

The Senate’s playing field keeps getting larger and, at least so far, entirely at Democrats’ expense. Three of their seats are, to put it charitably, uphill challenges. The open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia are pretty much gone. In Montana, it’s unclear whether newly appointed Senator John Walsh is in any better position, apart from fundraising, than he was when he was just the lieutenant governor running for an open seat. Between national party committees and super PACs, the amount of money raised by the candidates and their campaigns means less than ever before. With a handful of people in each party apparently ready to spend $50 million to $100 million of their own money on behalf of their favored candidates, a lot of things that used to be important aren’t so much anymore.

Although it is getting surprisingly little attention, Democrat Carl Levin’s open seat in Michigan is a toss-up; neither of the candidates is particularly strong or well defined, but the natural advantage that a Democrat in the Motor State could be expected to have is likely offset by ugly headwinds caused by radioactive Obama and ACA numbers. The same can be said for Tom Harkin’s open seat in Iowa. In both states, the presumptive Democratic nominees have Obamacare votes to defend, but the highly problematic GOP nomination process in Iowa might well yield an exotic and unelectable contender.

Presented by

Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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