History Shows Dems Face Long Odds in Keeping Senate

by John Fund

Political observers were stunned on Tuesday by the “happy talk” on President Obama that came from Senator Harry Reid. The majority leader actually said Senate Democrats should invite Obama into their states to campaign for them even if he is unpopular in them. “Barack Obama, he is a good person to campaign for anybody,” Reid enthused to CNN’s Dana Bash. That worked wonderfully well for Democrats in the last midterm election in 2010, when Obama helped Democrats lose six Senate seats and 63 House seats.

“Barack Obama is personally a very popular guy. And people love this man. They love his family,” Reid said. But there are limits to the love Democratic candidates have for him. Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana both recently made themselves scarce when Obama held an event in their state. Even in Wisconsin, which Obama has twice carried, Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke doesn’t want to campaign with the president when he arrives there on Thursday. Obama’s state approval rating is 44 percent, and just 35 percent of Badger State residents like Obamacare.

National Journal, a wonkish guide to Washington politics and policy, has a fascinating article detailing just how hard it is for a party to hold a Senate majority when an unpopular president of the same party is in the White House. “Over the last decade, just nine Senate candidates have won elections with a president of their party below his national approval average in their state,” National Journal concluded. “That’s about one success in every ten races.”

On that score, the 2014 Senate playing field is potentially brutal for Democrats. Democrats are defending seats in five states — Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia — where Obama’s approval rating was at or below 35 percent in 2013, according to Gallup. In four other states where Democrats hold a Senate seat that’s up in 2014, Obama’s approval rating was well below his national average of 46 percent: Louisiana (40 percent), Colorado and Iowa (42 percent), and North Carolina (43 percent). In Oregon, New Hampshire, and New Mexico the president had a 45 percent job-approval rating, just below his national average. That’s a whopping total of 11 Democratic seats that could potentially be in play this November.

Republicans also have seats they must defend, but far fewer of them. In Georgia, where the GOP must defend an open seat, Obama’s approval rating of 45 percent is below his national average. In Kentucky, where Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is running for reelection, only 35 percent of voters have a favorable view of the president.

The power of the job-approval curse was demonstrated in 2010, when Democrats won only a single Senate seat in a state where Obama’s job approval was below the national average. That one exception was West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the state’s governor, who went so far as to run at TV ad showing him firing a rifle through Obama’s cap-and-trade energy-tax bill.

Democrats insist that Obama’s approval ratings are picking up, but the latest RealClearPolitics average shows him stuck at 43.5 percent — below where he was in 2010. That may explain why Democratic senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana couldn’t wait to distance themselves from Obama last night. National Journal reported that “all released statements expressing disappointment with the president’s State of the Union — a sign that there’s not much he can do to help their reelections. Even Sen. Mark Udall (D), in battleground Colorado, repeatedly avoided whether he’d embrace the president’s help back home.”

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