Anatomy of a Democratic Midterm Freakout

National Democrats are in a near panic with a "poisonous" president unable to sway voters, a "screaming siren" warning about mid-term turnout, and Republicans on the offensive on Obamacare.

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National Democrats are in a near panic — if the media's highly-attuned panic detectors are any indicator — with a "poisonous" president unable to use his popularity to sway voters, a "screaming siren" warning about mid-term turnout, and Republicans on the offensive on Obamacare. There are a long eight months until November, but Democrats seem unlikely to get much sleep over the interim.

There are (at least!) six reasons why.

1. The midterms were always going to be bad for Democrats because of turnout.

It's important to remember that the midterm elections were always going to be difficult for the Democrats. Lower turnout elections usually favor Republicans, whose older, wealthier constituents vote more reliably. One large reason that Republican David Jolly won the special election in Florida last week was that turnout was very, very low.

On Bloomberg TV over the weekend, Obama advisor David Plouffe didn't mince words. "We have a turnout issue," he said. "This is a screaming siren that the same problems that afflicted us [in 2010] could happen again." In 2010 — a low turnout election that strongly favored the nascent Tea Party movement — Democrats lost 63 seats. Republicans are unlikely to make that much progress again simply because they did so well four years ago. But Democrats are unlikely to make much headway — and certainly won't retake the Chamber. "No prominent Democrats predict their party will win back the House," The New York Times drily notes.

2. President Obama is near all-time lows on his approval ratings.

That Times article also contains a quote explaining one of the key reasons Democrats are freaked out. "One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Obama was becoming 'poisonous' to the party’s candidates." Presidential popularity can be a key tool for ginning up support on the campaign trail. And being tied to an unpopular president can be an anchor.

Last week, an NBC / Wall Street Journal poll identified the poison. Obama's approval is at a record low in the surveys, and voters are wary of voting for people who are seen as solidly supportive of his administration. Democrats are eager to get Obama's vaunted-but-diminished voter engagement apparatus involved in their races, but Mr. Obama is welcome to remain in Washington, thank you very much.

3. Republicans have figured out how to walk the line on Obamacare.

In the wake of Jolly's win last week, Republicans clearly feel emboldened to return to the attack on Obamacare, a policy that (obviously not objective) GOP Chair Reince Priebus called "complete poison out there in the field." As Reuters notes, the win "has emboldened Republicans to press their case hard against Obama's signature first-term achievement."

Reuters reports that a Democratic pollster sent a memo around Capitol Hill after last week's race, explaining that "'keeping parts' of the Affordable Care Act that work and 'fixing those that don't' drew higher numbers than 'the Republican message of repeal.'"

Which is why House Republicans, after 50 votes attempting to curtail the law, have shifted toward a package of fixes. The Washington Post's Robert Costa describes the proposal as a sort of greatest hits of Republican reform proposals. And the rationale for releasing it now is obvious. "In meetings with Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last week," Costa reports, "House leadership allies cast Florida as a sign of good things to come in November. But they also cautioned that Republicans needed to offer a clearer alternative."

It's important to note that the caucus' right-most wing, the group that largely prompted those 50 votes, is skeptical. But in order to rebut the Democrats on the campaign trail, Republicans only need an alternative in-hand, not necessarily for anything to pass.

4. Outside Republican groups are outspending their opposition.

A key concern from Democrats is how badly they're being outspent. While Jolly and the Republicans were outspent by his Democratic rival Alex Sink and her allies in Florida, that's not the case nationally. The Times reports that "Republican groups have spent about $40 million in this election cycle, compared with just $17 million by Democrats" — largely focused on a repeal of Obamacare. The head of the Democrats' House campaign committee, New York Rep. Steve Israel, put it bluntly. "Florida 13 doesn’t keep me up at night," he said, "but the aggregate Republican super PAC money makes me toss and turn."

"I’m a prolific fund-raiser," Florida Rep. Joe Garcia told the Times, "but I can’t compete with somebody who has got 50-some-odd billion dollars."

5. Republicans are expanding the number of races where they want to compete.

The money the Democrats have will also need to be spent in places they would rather not have to spend it. On Friday, former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown entered the Senate race in New Hampshire, forcing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee arm to have to spend money in a year when they're already desperate to hold existing seats. Brown trails, but the DSCC would obviously rather spend that money holding embattled seats in Louisiana or Arkansas — or unseating Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

6. Democrats freaking out will only make all of the above problems worse.

In The Washington Post, columnist E. J. Dionne despairs, "Listlessness is bad politics. Defensiveness is poor strategy. And resignation is never inspiring."

Obama and his party are in danger of allowing the Republicans to set the terms of the 2014 elections, just as they did four years ago. The fog of nasty and depressing advertising threatens to reduce the electorate to a hard core of older, conservative voters eager to hand the president a blistering defeat.

On one hand, it's the turnout argument, that Republicans will be excited about turning out in November and Democrats won't. But in a larger sense, Dionne's message is that Democrats need to change their attitude, and quickly. Which, of course, is like telling someone suffering from depression to get over it. The problem runs a little deeper than that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.