WASHINGTON — A surly electorate that holds Congress in even lower regard than unpopular President Barack Obama is willing to “keep the bums in,” with at least 365 incumbents in the 435-member House and 18 of 28 senators on a glide path to another term when ballots are counted Nov. 4.
With less than 10 weeks to the elections, Republicans and Democrats who assess the midterm contests say the power of incumbency trumps the sour public mood and antipathy toward gridlocked Washington.
“Despite the incredibly low polling ... it’s still an incumbent’s world,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.
That leaves many voters angry, not only with the political reality but their inability to change it.
“I can’t get over where they say people are going to be able to keep their seats when they’re not doing their jobs. I just don’t understand it,” said retired teacher Pauline Legendre after voting in Minnesota’s Democratic primary on Aug. 12.
The voter disgust is palpable, evident in blistering comments at summertime town halls and middling percentages for incumbents in primaries. Yet no sitting senator has lost and only three members of the House got the primary boot. Come Election Day, only a fraction of the electorate will be motivated enough to vote, if history is any guide.
Congressional hopefuls are whipsawed by the two dynamics.
“It’s going to be a challenge for any candidate running for Congress to suggest that they have all the answers or that somehow there’s something about them that’s so inspiring” that voters are going to forget “how disenchanted or disaffected they are with government at the federal level,” said one candidate, Ryan Costello. The Republican is seeking an open House seat in southeast Pennsylvania, where just 12 percent of GOP voters turned out in the May primary.
Still, the candidates press ahead.
Republicans are laser-focused on gaining the six seats to grab the Senate majority and control Congress for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. Five Democratic retirements give the GOP a clear shot to capture control. So do races in conservative-leaning states such as Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas, where white Southern Democrats are rare.
The GOP figures it’s halfway to its goal, with a solid advantage in open contests in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana. Republicans are optimistic about the open seat in Iowa, less so about Michigan and energized by their prospects in Colorado and Alaska. If a GOP wave materializes, it could be in the Senate.
In the House, Republicans are expected to pad their majority, which now is 233-199 with three vacancies. The goal is to match or surpass the 246 seats the GOP held from 1947-49.
Fueling the battle is what’s expected to be a record flow of campaign cash. The parties’ campaign committees and their allied outside groups are spending at a rate certain to exceed the $3.6 billion price tag of the 2010 midterm elections.
Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 midterms and their majority to Republicans. But the GOP does not expect a comparable sweep in 2014 simply because redistricting reduced the number of opportunities. On that, Democrats agree, though an Obama decision on immigration could change the dynamic.
On the cusp of the fall election season, fewer than two dozen House Democrats and Republicans are in real jeopardy in November.
The GOP is counting on opposition to Obama to motivate its core voters. To counter, Democrats have sent 444 organizers to 48 districts to get out the vote. An additional 250-plus are ready for the September-to-November sprint as the party typically faces a drop-off in midterm voting.
The Democratic Party is using reminder pledge cards that say “1 million votes for 2014,” which is the number they say decided 65 competitive House races in 2012. Democrats maintain that they had a shot two years ago, but Obama’s miserable performance in his first presidential debate doomed his party’s chances.
It’s an uphill fight as the president’s party typically loses seats in a nonpresidential election year.
At a meeting last month with small business owners and workers at a wood fabricating plant in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Joe Pitts got an earful from farmer, Michael Appel, 48, who pressed the nine-term congressman to do more to stop Obama.
“I’m wondering, especially when it comes to Obamacare, how the House is going to start holding the president accountable for making law out of whole cloth?” Appel asked.
“It’s not that we wouldn’t like to, it’s a matter of what we can do,” Pitts responded. “You need the House, the Senate and the president. The problem is we don’t have those two.”
As staff urged the attendees to vote, Appel erupted in frustration: “I voted for Joe Pitts and all he’s told me so far up here is he’s powerless.”
Pitts said in an interview that it’s up to lawmakers to educate voters about the limits of divided government.
“I share their frustration,” Pitts said. “I understand they’re not as involved so they don’t understand a lot of it, but they have a responsibility to turn out next time if they’re concerned, because there are real consequences to these elections in public policy.”
Democratic incumbents have cast themselves as outsiders as they sympathize with hostile voters.
New York Rep. Dan Maffei says “we gotta hold ‘em accountable” in his campaign ad. Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack did not mince words when he told constituents, “Congress is an incredibly dysfunctional mess and everyone knows that,” and he blamed the lack of compromise.
In York, Pennsylvania, first-term Republican Rep. Scott Perry insisted that the House had been doing its job by passing bills, but that cooperation was lacking from the Democratic-led Senate and Obama.
One voter asked him whether, if the Senate goes Republican in November, there might be more hope.
“If you’re expecting cataclysmic change immediately, I think that’s a bit beyond expectations,” Perry said.