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November 29, 2013 12:20 PM “Waves” and Exposure

By Ed Kilgore

On Wednesday at WaPo came one of those headlines that can subtly affect your perception of events even if you don’t read or think about the underlying article: “Is Another Republican Wave Building?” It was by former Hotline editor Reid Wilson, and it followed a facile logic:

President Obama’s poll numbers are at record lows. The health care law that serves as the cornerstone of his domestic policy legacy is even more unpopular. And there are few chances to change the conversation among a skeptical public that isn’t happy with Washington.
Sound familiar? It should: The national political climate today is starting to resemble 2010, when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by riding a wave of voter anger.
Wave elections are rare. Only a handful of times in the previous century has one party racked up big wins. Democrats won big handfuls of House seats in 1930, 1932, 1948, 1958, 1974, 2006 and 2008. Republicans won back more than 40 seats in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1966, 1994 and 2010. And with nearly a year to go before Election Day, voters’ moods can change dramatically.
But the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Obama’s crumbling support suggests another wave might be building. While voters usually punish a president’s party in at least one midterm election, they may be winding up to deliver another smack to President Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill.

Sounds plausible until you look at the landscape, as was pointed out to me in an email from Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz:

There are certainly reasons for Democrats to be concerned right now but there are also good reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of a Republican wave election in the House elections next November.
First, it’s way too early to make any predictions based on either the President’s approval numbers or the generic ballot results which will become more meaningful next summer and fall. And given the distinct possibility that the public’s view of the ACA could improve considerably when/if the problems with the website have been corrected and millions of Americans begin receiving health insurance through the exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid, it would not be surprising to see at least a modest rebound in the Presiden’t approval rating and the generic ballot results by then.
But aside from this possibility, there is a crucial difference between the political environment today and the situation in 2010. Back then, Democrats were defending over 250 seats in the House including many in Republican-leaning districts. Today, Democrats only hold 201 seats and very few of those are in Republican-leaning districts. Just based on this fact, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will lose a substantial number of House seats next year.

We sometimes forget that the size of the 2010 GOP “wave” was made possible by two consecutive very strong Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, which left many junior Democrats “exposed” in marginal or even hostile districts. Yes, Republicans did a lot to strengthen their hands in the House during the most recent redistricting cycle, but mostly used that power to shore up their own Members rather than undermining Democrats.

The same “exposure” limitation to a 2014 GOP “wave” exists with respect to gubernatorial races. Democrats held 19 of the 37 seats up in 2010. Republicans hold 23 of the 36 up in 2014.

Reid and Abramowitz (and yours truly) would agree the main risk to Democrats of a strong 2014 environment would be in the Senate. But there, too, exposure is limited to a relative handful of states where everything needs to go right for the GOP, without the kind of unexpected and self-inflicted damage that undid Republicans in both 2010 and 2012.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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