Ever since the November election, Democrats have been talking big about 2014. The odds are always against the party that controls the White House in a midterm, but after President Obama’s smashing victory and the surprising Democrat gains, especially in the Senate, optimism about the next Congressional election has reigned in the White House as well as liberal opinion columns.
But the decision of yet another incumbent Senate Democrat in a red state to forgo a shot at re-election earlier this week ought to put something of a chill on liberal triumphalism. While, as the 2012 election illustrated, all assumptions about who has the edge in a battle for control of Congress are bound to be upset by developments that neither pundits nor party leaders can foresee, the odds against the Democrats next year are getting longer, not shorter.
South Dakota’s Tim Johnson was the fifth Democrat to announce he would be leaving the Senate at the end of 2014 and immediately put his seat in play. He joins Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller among those exiting the arena. Of the five, only Lautenberg’s seat could be said to be safe for the Democrats. Neither of the two Republicans not running for re-election—Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns—is leaving their seats in jeopardy for their party. When you add these changes to the existing lineup in which Democrats will be defending 21 seats next year (including a number of red state seats whose incumbents were the beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s 2008 coat tails) as opposed to the GOP’s 14, it’s much easier to chart a path to a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 than it is to imagine another big year for the Democrats.
The argument for a Democrat opportunity this year is based on a continuation of the same trends that have helped Obama in 2008 and 2012. They are counting larger numbers of minorities making up the electorate than in the past as the demographic picture of the country changes to help Democrats.
Moreover, the president and his media cheerleaders are genuinely convinced that more than demography is at work to help Democrats. They believe GOP stands on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, as well as their opposition to raising taxes, gives them a near permanent advantage that will be impossible for their opponents to overcome. But as even liberal poll guru Nate Silver noted last week, the president’s supposedly permanent edge on economic issues over a Tea Party-controlled GOP evaporated before the onset of spring.
The president does seem more focused on helping his party in the midterms than he was in the prelude to 2010. But his absence from the ballot that year was the determining factor in understanding the difference between the results in 2010 as opposed to those in 2008 and 2012. Without the much larger turnout associated with a presidential election—especially one in which a magnetic and hugely popular candidate like Obama is driving interest—Democrats are facing odds that favor their opponents.
Just as no one could have predicted the Tea Party revolt that galvanized the country in 2010, we don’t know what factors will sketch the narrative of the next federal election. But liberal assumptions that they can look forward to another cakewalk in 2014 because of the advantages they held in January or February 2013 is the sort of mistake that often leads to partisan debacles such as the one they experienced at the last midterm.