The Washington consensus right now is that Republicans are slight favorites to take control of the Senate in the midterms. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver put the odds at 60 percent. Other prognosticators agree. That may be true right now, but there are signs that the calculus could change in the coming months. Democrats may be in better shape than anyone realizes.
That doesn't mean Democrats are in good shape. They still face a number of structural disadvantages this fall, as Talking Point Memo’s Sahil Kapur documented in February. The party is defending 21 seats, compared to just 15 for Republicans, including ones in red states such as Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas, and North Carolina. Democratic senators Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor, for instance, are both from deep-red states—Landrieu's Louisiana went for Romney by 17 points, Pryor's Arkansas by 24 points—that don’t like Obamacare. Outside conservative groups, like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, are already spending millions of dollars on attack ads against the Democratic incumbents.
Further complicating matters, Democratic turnout historically drops in midterm elections. Democrats also face the “sixth year curse,” which holds that the party of the president struggles during his second-term midterms. Only Bill Clinton gained seats, thanks to a strong economy and overzealous impeachment trial in Newt Gingrich's House. In 2006, George W. Bush lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson lost 47 in the House and four in the Senate. Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman all lost seats in both houses during their sixth years.
Thus, regardless of the public’s support, or lack thereof, of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats face an uphill battle this year. But could they pull a miracle upset and actually increase their majority? RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende, the best conservative prognosticator out there, laid out that unlikely scenario in a piece last week: “The way this could occur is fairly straightforward: The Affordable Care Act improves; there’s no massive rate shock for premiums in September or October; and the economy slowly gains ground. This should propel President Obama’s job approval upward, lifting the collective Democratic boat.”
That doesn’t sound like such a long shot. The media narrative about Obamacare seems to have turned a corner since the administration announced eight million signups. Every day, it seems, there is a new survey or report bearing good news about the law. This hasn’t improved the opinion polls yet, but it likely will. After all, support for the law didn’t deteriorate right after the catastrophic launch. It took more than a month to register.
Republicans want to make the midterms a referendum on Obamacare, but that is easier said than done. As Brian Beutler has documented, the law’s recent success has hamstrung Republicans' ability to use it for political gain. Readers and reporters alike seem to be tiring of the story, as you can see from Google's headline trends for “Obamacare” over the past year:
The law was front-page news throughout October and November due to the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov, the controversy surrounding the Obama's “if you like your plan, you can keep it” promise, and health-care plan cancellations. But then the administration fixed the website and people began signing up for the law, and the number of headlines dropped. For Obamacare to have an impact this fall, Republicans need to maintain the media and public's interest in the law for a long time—and they need that interest to be negative. Millions of people now have insurance because of the law. Millions more have received it through the Medicaid expansion, and the refusal of many Republican governors and legislators to expand it in their states could offer Democrats another political advantage.
The biggest Obamacare story of the summer and fall is likely to be "rate shock": The notion, pushed by conservatives, that health-care premiums will spike for people who buy coverage on their own. The likelihood of this is impossible to predict and will likely vary by state. Some will see large increases and others will not. Before the ACA, the annual changes in premiums were unpredictable, too—sometimes increasing by single digits, sometimes by double digits. Obamacare will undoubtedly take the blame for any large increases in rates this year. Nevertheless, there have been signs the past few days that conservative warnings of massive rate shock may never materialize.
Finally, on the economy, there are signs that the recovery is picking up too. The economic data has improved since a rough first two months of the year. Jobless claims fell to a post-crisis low last week, and for the first time since September 2008, no state has an unemployment rate above nine percent.
Of course, plenty of other things could happen in the next few months to hurt Democrats' chances of retaining the Senate. Russia could cut off oil and gas exports to Europe, sending gasoline prices skyrocketing and crushing the recovery. Republicans could be right about widespread rate shock. Half of the eight million Obamacare signups could decide not to pay their premiums. These developments would likely hand the Senate to Republicans, given that they already have a structural advantage.
For all these reasons, the odds are very low that Democrats pick up seats in the Senate, but the odds that Mitch McConnell becomes the majority leader in 2015 are falling as well. At the end of his piece, Trende warns that a poor performance by the GOP this year could lead to a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in 2017. For Democrats who argue that these midterms are meaningless because Obama’s legislative agenda is already dead, it’s time to reconsider.