Obamacare Woes Brighten GOP Outlook for 2014 Elections

Monday, January 6, 2014
By: RJC Congressional Affairs Director Noah Silverman

One observer who wasted no time beginning to prepare for the 2014 House and Senate elections is President Obama.

Within days of Obama's second inauguration, Democrat sources announced that the President had pledged to hold at least fourteen major fundraising events for his party's congressional candidates. “Maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate and picking up Democratic seats in the House will be crucial to Obama as he seeks support for his second-term agenda,” a February Associated Press report noted.

Expectations for Democrat gains faltered quickly. Obama was battered by scandals and embarrassed by his erratic handling of a foreign policy crisis in Syria. Republicans were increasingly confident of their hold on the House and determined to make a strong run to take over the Senate.

The 17-day government shutdown in October changed the outlook dramatically. Polls showed a quick 10 percent decline in the share of voters rating the Republican Party positively and a dramatic gain for Democrats on the 'generic ballot' poll question.

More concretely, Democrats showcased striking gains in candidate recruitment, in some cases landing candidates who had rebuffed previous entreaties to run. And Democrats' political committees raked in record fundraising hauls during the shutdown.

Once the shutdown ended, though, the spotlight was on Obamacare - and Democrat prospects have been reeling ever since.

As 2014 begins, Republicans have surged back into the lead on the generic ballot. Democrat recruiting efforts have stalled. Some of the Democrat candidates who announced bids in October had folded their tents altogether by December.

Hopeful Republicans still have a great deal of work to do – especially with respect to fundraising – but the outlook for taking the Senate and bolstering the GOP majority in the House looks better than ever.


After falling to take the Senate in 2010 and losing seats in 2012, Republicans believe that it's now or never in 2014. Because Democrats made major gains in 2008, there are many more electoral opportunities for Mitch McConnell's team than there are for Harry Reid's.

Ironically, one of the only Republican Senate seats at risk is McConnell's. If the GOP is to retake the Senate, it’s essential that the five-term party leader repel a strong challenge from Kentucky's liberal Secretary of State, 35 year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The other potential GOP trouble spot is Georgia, where the vacancy resulting from two-term Republican Saxby Chambliss's retirement has drawn a large field of Republican candidates that includes three sitting members of the House of Representatives. The winner of an eventual run-off will face off against political newcomer Michelle Nunn, the daughter of the former Senator who held this seat for decades.

Republican opportunities begin with five seats left open by the retirement of veteran Democrat Senators Tim Johnson (SD), Max Baucus (MT), Jay Rockerfeller (WV),Tom Harkin (IA),and Carl Levin (MI). The GOP holds the advantage in the South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia races. And increasingly, Republicans in Iowa and Michigan are convinced they have a chance to 'steal' purple-state seats by challenging Democrat standard-bearers who voted to subject their constituents to Obamacare.

Even if Republicans protect all their own seats and sweep the open seats, though, they'd need to knock off at least one incumbent Democrat Senator to gain a Senate majority. Strong candidates have emerged to take on 'red-state' Democrats Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Begich (AK) and Mark Pryor (AR).

And GOP operatives are maneuvering to corral capable candidates who can take advantage in the increasingly likely event that an anti-Obamacare backlash leads to sustained trouble for 'purple state' Democrats such as Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Udall (CO), Al Franken (MN), and Mark Warner (VA).

House of Representatives

In the House, as many as 90 percent of the seats are so securely within the grasp of one party or the other that there is no prospect of a change in party control.

Of the remainder – the 40 to 45 House seats that will see genuinely competitive races – slightly more are controlled by the Democrats. That means that Democrats would have needed to 'run the table' and then some to take a majority.

Democrats' hopes that the government shutdown would create the 'game-changing' dynamic that could make a Democrat takeover possible have been dashed. A December Washington Post analysis calculated that Nancy Pelosi's squad had a one percent chance of returning to power in 2014.

That said, Democrats have had success in the fundraising battle and expect to make a strong bid for control in 2016. Republicans can take nothing for granted as they prepare for intense battles to dislodge the few remaining Democrats holding on in GOP-leaning districts and to protect GOP stalwarts Democrats have targeted for political elimination.