Mitch McConnell, in wave form.

If Democrats Lose Senate, They May Not Get It Back

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Democrats curse their luck in 2014 -- a midterm in a president's (often) grim sixth year, with most of the competitive races taking place in states won easily by the last Republican presidential candidate. Low presidential approval ratings in states that Democrats need to win -- Obama is at around 38 percent in Iowa, a state he won in both 2008 and 2012 -- are not leavening the mood.

Democrats have been consoling themselves by thinking of 2016, when they expect to have a strong presidential candidate and a much improved playing field. Many more Republican seats (23) than Democratic seats (10) will be contested that year, and the electorate is expected to swell with liberal presidential voters who are often AWOL in nonpresidential years. So 2016 should be as good for Democrats as 2014 is bad.

Unless, that is, 2014 is really, really bad. How bad? The data folks have been pretty cautious to date. But now election analyst Stuart Rothenberg is starting to talk "wave."

I am now expecting a substantial Republican Senate wave in November, with a net gain of at least seven seats. But I wouldn't be shocked by a larger gain.

If a wave materializes, and Democrats get wiped out across the South -- and in Iowa and Alaska, too -- the prospects for 2016 grow significantly dicier. (If Hispanic voters stay home in droves this year, and the Democratic candidate in Colorado falls, as well, it gets even worse.)

In 2016, Republicans will be fielding candidates in some inhospitable territory, including Pennsylvania, where the incumbent Republican governor is getting clobbered this year, and Wisconsin, where a Republican governor is currently hanging on by the skin of his union-grinding molars. Republican-held seats in Illinois and New Hampshire will also be in play.

Democrats, however, will be defending seats including the one held by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who barely survived his last outing against a weak challenger, and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose political prospects seem pretty variable.

If Democrats lose six seats this year, they will lose the Senate but still be well positioned for a comeback in 2016. (Besides, a fractious 51-49 Republican majority may make Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wish he'd never been born.) If Democrats lose eight or nine seats, 2016 will suddenly look like a whole lot less fun.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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