The three seats the party has all but conceded to Republicans are in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana, where the departures of long-serving Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Max Baucus (who became ambassador to China) pretty much doomed Democrats' chances of winning. Democrats initially had hopes they could hold onto Montana, but their nominee, John Walsh, withdrew from the race last month amid a plagiarism scandal.
With those three gone, Democrats have incumbents up for re-election in another four states that Mitt Romney won in 2012: Alaska (Mark Begich), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), and North Carolina (Kay Hagan). Those races are all considered toss-ups, and Republican victories in three of them would give the GOP the Senate.
Republicans have also expanded the map to make competitive runs in Iowa and Colorado, two swing states that Obama won in 2012. Democrats, meanwhile, have only two shots at snagging Senate seats currently held by Republicans, and both of those – in Kentucky and Georgia – are in red states where they begin at a disadvantage.
On the House side, redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census has reduced the number of competitive races, helping Republicans lock in their majority.
The Unpopular President
In the sixth year of his presidency, Obama is plainly a drag on Democratic candidates in most races. His national approval rating in the Gallup poll has hovered near 40 percent all summer, with a majority of voters disapproving of his performance in office. The president's numbers are even worse in the red states that are home to most of the competitive Senate races, leading to an avalanche of television ads linking Democratic candidates to the unpopular Obama.
Even if Obama had better standing, his party would begin the midterm election in his second term at a disadvantage. That's because of the historical phenomenon known as the "Six-Year Itch," in which voters who have tired of the president's party have responded by voting against it in the midterm elections. According to electoral forecaster Charlie Cook, the president's party has lost an average of five Senate seats and 29 House seats over five of the six midterm elections of second-term presidencies since World War II. The major exception to that came in 1998, when President Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats benefited from a voter backlash to the GOP's impeachment drive (which largely explains why Democrats this year have been so keen on accusing Republicans of wanting to impeach Obama.).
And with the recent exception of 2006, when President George W. Bush's unpopularity helped cost Republicans control of Congress, Democrats have historically struggled to turn out their voters in midterm elections at the same rate as in presidential years, as Bill Clinton noted in Florida last week:
We're great at doing what's right if there's a presidential election on the ballot but we're not nearly as good as our Republican opponents are at showing up in the midterm elections."
There's never a good time for the world to fall apart, but an election year is a particularly inconvenient time for the party in power. Voters may not directly blame congressional Democrats for the rise of the Islamic State, or Russia's aggression toward Ukraine, or the Ebola outbreak, but they have soured significantly on Obama's foreign policy, and that does not reflect well on his party's candidates.