Cook: ‘Perfect Storm’ for Democrats in Obama’s Second Midterm

Kentucky Democratic Senate Candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes delivers remarks before introducing former U.S. President Bill Clinton during a campaign event on Feb. 25, 2014 in Louisville.

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Kentucky Democratic Senate Candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes delivers remarks before introducing former U.S. President Bill Clinton during a campaign event on Feb. 25, 2014 in Louisville.

President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul is “an albatross” for Democrats buffeted by a “perfect storm” of factors including an unfavorable Senate map, the president’s mediocre approval ratings and historical trends favoring midterm election gains by the party opposing the White House.

Those are among the major points Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and one of the nation’s premier political analysts, made at an election briefing today at the Newseum in Washington.

Democrats are the defending party in 21 of the 36 Senate seats at stake in the November elections, including seven in states that Obama didn’t win in 2012. The president lost by at least 13.7 percentage points in six of those states, matching the net seat gain Republicans need for a Senate majority. Democrats presently control 55 of the 100 seats.

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Also complicating matters for Democrats: Obama’s approval ratings are “hovering between 40 and 45 percent,” Cook said, and most Americans still think the U.S. economy is in recession. And the White House almost always loses ground in Congress in lower-turnout midterm elections.

“It’s almost a perfect storm of factors coming together that just are all bad for Senate Democrats,” Cook said.

The South Dakota seat of retiring Democrat Tim Johnson is “just gone for Democrats,” and Democratic-held seats in West Virginia and Montana probably will go Republican too, Cook said. Depending on the state, Republicans merit a 40-60 percent chance of winning Democratic-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina and New Hampshire, he said.

The only competitive Republican-held seats are in Kentucky, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is seeking re-election, and Georgia, where a crowded Republican field will be thinned starting in a first-round primary on May 20.

If McConnell’s presumed Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, “makes the slightest mistake in a debate or anything like that, Mitch McConnell will beat her like a rented mule,” Cook said. “But if she doesn’t make a mistake, I think she wins.”

McConnell, a three-decade Senate veteran, “will know what to do if she makes a mistake,” he said.

Democrats are seeking to overcome the unfavorable political environment in part by pouring tens of millions of dollars into get-out-the-vote operations in states holding key Senate elections. Democrats are portraying Republican candidates as too extreme for the states they seek to represent. Incumbents including Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Begich in Alaska are emphasizing their efforts to aid home-state industry.

Obamacare is “unquestionably a liability” for Democrats, Cook said. While more Americans would rather keep the health-care law or make changes to it than repeal and replace it with a completely different system, more disapprove than approve of the law generally. Republicans have made opposition to Obamacare a key part of their campaign.

“Americans may grow to love the Affordable Care Act, but it’s sure as heck not likely to happen between now and November, and I think the odds of that happening between now and 2016 are relatively small,” Cook said.

The House looks safely Republican. Cook currently sees the November election producing at least a “wash” and as much as a 10-seat gain for Republicans.

Republicans have some pressing challenges to confront. The 2012 presidential election underscored problems for the party among voting blocs including women, young adults, Hispanics, Asians and self-described moderates. Mitt Romney lost to Obama by 4 percentage points nationwide even as the Republican presidential nominee won 59 percent of white voters, whose share of the electorate keeps falling with each presidential election, according to national exit polls.

“I think if you looked at the Republican Party over the long haul, if it were a commercial enterprise, I think you’d say that they have an unsustainable business model, that they’ve got to change that in terms of the long-term interests of the Republican Party,” he said.

Republican leaders “really do get this,” though some of the “more exotic and problematic members of their conference, less so, and that’s just an enormous, enormous challenge that they have to do,” Cook said.

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