Conventional wisdom holds that sixth-year midterms are brutal for a president’s party. We all know the stories: Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans got clobbered in 1958, particularly conservative Republicans, setting the stage for the more liberal ’60s. Richard Nixon was no longer in office by election day in 1974, but if he had been, he would have been able to see Democrats elect a frosh class of aggressive, militant liberals. Ronald Reagan saw his party lose the Senate in 1986. And FDR’s missteps in choosing to pack the Supreme Court, sharply cutting spending and hamfisted (but well-intentioned) meddling in Senate primaries wound up leading to a conservative rebirth after six years in the wilderness. So, going by this pattern, Democrats are just about doomed next year, will lose the Senate and probably more ground in the House too, possibly even setting up a situation where President John Thune signs the federal budget with a beaming Paul Ryan standing behind him, finally setting liberalism to rest here in the U. S. of A.

But I think there are serious problems with this theory. Presidents serving two full terms is a small sample size, and it’s possible that the general trends taken from their examples have a certain skew to them. Presidents who have a poor economy in their second terms (as both Nixon and Eisenhower did) are going to have a tough time of it, while presidents who have a good economy aren’t. Same goes for first term presidents, like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Reagan’s case is more complicated: the economy was going quite well in most of the country during his second term, but it was still awful in rural America, which led to a rather atypical pattern in which Democrats wiped the floor with Republicans in the rural South and the Plains states, but had little success in the Northeast, where the economy was good and Republican incumbents were largely retained. Also, Reagan’s Administration was beset by an enormous number of scandals, mainly (but not exclusively) Iran-Contra. Barack Obama will more likely than not preside over a sharply improving economy over the next two years, and since his Administration has had no scandals in the true sense of the word, it seems at least possible that Democrats will hold their own, or suffer nominal losses.

Specifically? Democrats stand ready to snag a few governorships from the Republicans, and aren’t likely to lose many. At this point, only Arkansas seems lost to Dem control. Meanwhile, potentially lots of state executives seem vulnerable. I can see three basic tranches here. The first are the flukes. Paul LePage of Maine and Rick Scott of Florida are Tea Partiers who have been extraordinarily poor fits for their respective states with limited political skills, and should lose without too much fuss. Then you have the “Red Squad” people: Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, in roughly ascending order of strength. Corbett’s Administration has been tainted by his involvement in the Penn State abuse scandal, as well as brutal education cuts. Democrats are likely to see a large field of primary candidates, and so long as they stop a primary bloodbath the process ought to generate a solid candidate who can beat the unpopular incumbent. Snyder might or might not bounce back from his flip-flop on Right To Work legislation, but given the high union density of his state, probably the least that happens is that he gets bounced himself. Those two are likely to go. After that, it gets tricky. Kasich was very unpopular early in his tenure, and is hardly thought to be safe, but he’s mostly been quiet since the stinging rejection of his collective bargaining ban at the ballot box, and seems disinclined to go after labor again. Absent a very strong opponent (fmr. Gov. Strickland said no to another bid), he might well sneak into another term. And Walker is very polarizing but still marginally favored, though the state’s poor economy coupled with a strong candidate could make it a real race. And then there are the outliers. Arizona, Texas and South Carolina could all be possibilities, the former because it’s open, the latter two because the incumbents are very unpopular. In any event, gaining 4-5 of these seats would be enormously significant.

Obviously, the toughest nut to crack will be the Senate. There are virtually no promising opportunities for offense, and a lot of red state Democrats in tough positions. But there’s no real reason for doom-and-gloom, at least, not yet. Obviously, Jay Rockefeller’s retirement has given the GOP a prime opportunity in West Virginia, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it hopeless yet. There’s the very real chance a Tea Party primary or third-party run could happen, and the first poll of the contest from upstart GOP company Harper Polling is more interesting for what it doesn’t say than what it actually says: namely, it doesn’t test the strongest candidate for the seat (Secretary of State Natalie Tennant) and appears to have internalized the “poll truther” movement by assuming a much more conservative electorate than the state has ever had. So we’ll have to wait for more definitive proof. The other most vulnerable people are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, though these are a bit misleading. Johnson is a state institution that has to be favored if he doesn’t retire, and Pryor has the benefit of his family name being a familiar brand in the state. Begich has some of that too–his father tragically died in a plane accident as a Member of Congress–but he’s also in a state that tends to be conservative but elastic and independent in a lot of ways. And it’s hardly a hotbed for the Tea Party, as witnessed by a Tea candidate losing to a write-in incumbent in 2010. If that’s the route they go, he could find himself still in for another term. Of course, this could change if Obama appoints a few more marginal Senators to second-tier Cabinet positions, but all things equal, it’s hardly looking like a doomsday out there.

And then there’s the House. This is the crux of it, but I could see Democrats making nontrivial gains there in 2014. Think about it. The only times in modern history a president’s party has increased their share in a midterm were in 1934, 1998 and 2002. The second was due to the rest of the party trusting Newt Gingrich’s judgment, which was obviously stupid. John Boehner, to his credit, was on Gingrich’s leadership team and really seems to have learned from his former boss’s big mistakes. He’s been very reluctant to shut down the government or stir up talk about impeachment, which were the things that helped tank Gingrich’s career. But Gingrich also had been the leader of House conservatives for over a decade before becoming Speaker, and had a caucus that was much less radical and even contained a few combative moderates like Rick Lazio. Boehner’s caucus contains two groups: nuts, and wimps. Given how much a toll the past two years have taken on his party’s image, something had to give, and indeed it has: the Hastert Rule. Now, Boehner is apparently able to bring bills to the floor without (explicit) support from most Republicans. And, most surprisingly, without too much freakout from the hard right, at least for now. But one wonders about the drawbacks of this. If the radicals in the House start feeling like their will isn’t being well enough represented, it’s easy to see how they demand impeachment hearings as the price for continuing to ignore the Hastert Rule. Or maybe they go into revolt in some other way. Boehner has struck onto a workable technique for responsible legislating, but it’s very difficult to imagine most House Republicans just accepting this, especially if it gets applied to something like immigration reform. Boehner’s strategy is probably the party’s best hope of holding onto its House majority over the next few election cycles, to at least give the appearance that the GOP still can govern. Only it can’t. The party is increasingly made up of interest groups all trying to impose their will over all others, a shambolic force that doesn’t really have much of a vision and has little trust among the electorate. Which sounds just like…the 1934 Republicans, and the 2002 Democrats! There are a lot of difficulties to achieving a nontrivial gain in the House, but I would hardly dismiss it out of hand.


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