Judgment Day: Incumbents are in trouble

The U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., October 26, 2014, a week before Election Day.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., October 26, 2014, a week before Election Day. McClatchy

They may or may not be bums, but voters are poised to throw a lot of politicians out on Tuesday.

Two-thirds of Americans see the nation on the wrong track. Confidence in the economy remains shaky. People are scared about terrorist threats and the Ebola virus.

They see their political leaders as inept, which means any ally of President Barack Obama is in trouble Tuesday, if people vote at all. Turnout is expected to be dismal. Dozens of officeholders are in trouble from Alaska to Florida.

Republicans stand to benefit most from this surly mood. Since they don’t control the White House or the Senate, the party is a slight favorite to win the six Senate seats it needs to take control of the chamber for the first time in eight years. But they’re not immune from the voter anger. Republicans control 22 of the 36 governorships at stake Tuesday, and at least a dozen incumbents are vulnerable, an unusually large number.

The only bloc likely to escape most of this voter rage is House of Representatives members. Republicans now have a 233-199 majority, a margin expected to grow. House Republicans are largely spared voter ire because both parties have drawn most congressional districts to protect their seats.

Voter frustration with government, though, is everywhere. People see Washington and many statehouses as unable to react quickly and efficiently to a procession of crises.

Since Obama’s the most prominent figure, voters see this mess as largely his.

“President Barack Obama no longer has the benefit of the doubt from the American people,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “When news events pop up, he gets connected to them, fairly or unfairly.”

Events do keep popping up.

This summer, children and families from Central American countries were pouring across the U.S. border. Obama had hoped to announce an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system this fall – which probably would have helped prod Latino turnout for the Democrats. But he delayed action until after the election, fearing a backlash in Southern and Midwestern states with close Senate races.

As the general election season got into full swing in September, the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and Obama’s initially deliberate response, dominated headlines. Then came the Ebola virus threat.

All this helps energize an already eager Republican electorate. “The president is the Republicans’ main motivation,” explained Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan Denver-based pollster.

The math is kind to Republicans, who are well-positioned to win Senate races in seven states where Democrats now hold seats but that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012.

Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia are seen as relatively easy Republican pickups. Republicans are ahead in Louisiana and Arkansas, and close in Alaska and North Carolina.

Republicans could have an even bigger night if Democratic-held seats in Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire fall. Polls suggest Democrats could lose seats in each state.

The common GOP refrain in each state with a Democratic senator: the incumbent voted with Obama at least 90 percent of the time on key Senate votes.

Obama has helped their cause.

“I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them,” he said in an Oct. 2 speech.

OK, said Republicans, who keep reminding people of just that.

“This November, the president’s policies appear on the ballot. I urge you to vote Republican to keep terrorists off U.S. soil,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said earlier this week as he introduced an ad blasting Obama’s national security policies.

The more Americans remain concerned about the direction of the country, and see nonstop headlines about terrorism and Ebola, the better Republicans fare. A Pew Research Center survey earlier this month gave Republicans a 17 percentage point advantage over Democrats on handling terrorist threats. Republicans also were seen as better able to handle the federal budget deficit, the economy and immigration.

But the anti-incumbent tide could hurt Republicans, too. The public blamed them largely for the October 2013 partial government shutdown. People today see Democrats as the more empathetic party; Pew found that by 54 percent to 33 percent, voters thought Democrats cared more about “the needs of people like me.”

Republicans could lose seats they now hold in Georgia and Kansas and suffer a huge blow in Kentucky, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains in a tight race with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Governors face the same trouble as Washington Democrats: They’re in charge of governments that voters see as taxing them too much and fumbling responses to a procession of crises.

Some of the Republican governors elected in 2010, many touted as up-and-coming party stars, are fighting for their jobs, and in many cases, their political lives.

Among them: Florida’s Rick Scott, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Kansas’ Sam Brownback, Georgia’s Nathan Deal, Maine’s Paul LePage, Alaska’s Sean Parnell and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who could see a possible 2016 presidential bid derailed.

Democrats have some vulnerable governors, too: Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy, Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Illinois’ Pat Quinn.

The big prize, though, is the Senate, which Republicans last controlled nearly eight years ago, and the difference-maker in the Senate races is Obama.

In New Hampshire, for example, which the president won both in 2008 and 2012, his state approval rating this month dropped to an all-time low of 38 percent, according to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

That’s making the difference in an unexpectedly tight race between Republican candidate Scott Brown and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The longer crises keep raising questions about government’s ability to handle them, Brown probably has an edge, said Wayne Lesperance, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at New England College.

“It’s all about Jeanne Shaheen and her 99 percent voting record with the president,” he said, “and nervousness about the way things are being handled in Washington.”

Related stories from McClatchy DC