One month before U.S. congressional midterm elections, Republicans believe control of both chambers of Congress is now within their reach.
The outcome of a handful of key Senate races around the country will determine which party controls the Senate next year, and that in turn could have a significant impact on President Barack Obama’s final two years in office.
Low public approval ratings for Obama, plus lingering voter concerns about the economy, are setting the stage for a strong Republican showing in the congressional elections on November 4.
Political analyst Charlie Cook said that several Senate Democrats have put distance between themselves and the president in hopes of prevailing in tough races in November.
“What are midterm elections about, particularly second term midterm elections?” he asked. “It is a referendum on the incumbent president. You know, I am going to use a technical political science term here. This is a bummer (bad) environment for Democrats.”
Analysts agree Republicans have the political advantage this year just two years after Obama won re-election.
Most experts predict Republicans will either hold or expand their majority in the House of Representatives. The question is will there be enough of a Republican surge in November to gain the six seats they would need to gain a majority in the Senate.
Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute said there are too many close Senate races around the country to safely predict if Republicans will win a majority.
“I’m not sure we are going to see a wave, a big wave that would benefit the Republicans,” Bowman said. “Clearly they will pick up a few seats in the House. They will pick up seats in the Senate, but whether it will be enough to get control, I think, is premature.”
Key Senate seats
Analysts expect Republicans to pick up from five to eight seats in the Senate.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take back the majority and most pundits believe they are halfway there.
The party’s candidates have huge leads in three Republican-leaning states where Democrats currently hold Senate seats: Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.
That means Republicans only need to win three more Senate seats now held by Democrats to claim a Senate majority, and their best opportunities appear to be in states that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney easily carried in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Republicans are also challenging Democrats in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina, so they have a broad array of targets to pick from to gain the six seats they need to claim a Senate majority.
Democrats have only two opportunities to win a seat now held by Republicans: the open Senate seat in Georgia and the one held by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
But in recent weeks both those races have been trending in favor of the Republican candidates.
However, there are a couple of wild cards here. First is the strange race in Kansas where incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is facing a strong challenge from independent candidate Greg Orman.
Orman could score an upset because there is no Democrat on the ballot and Roberts seems to be in trouble with some voters who believe he’s lost touch with his home state.
Orman won’t say which party he will caucus with if elected.
Two states also will hold runoff elections if no candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote in November.
Louisiana’s runoff is scheduled for December while Georgia would hold one on January 6.
So it’s possible, if things are really tight and we need two runoff elections to decide the races in Louisiana and Georgia, that we might not know which party controls the Senate until early in 2015.
Republican hopes for turnout
Increasingly, though, a number of experts now believe Republicans have a better than even chance of retaking the Senate.
John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center said Democrats find themselves having to defend too many Senate seats in states that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney easily won two years ago.
“I think one of the problems, though, for the president and his party is that some of these key seats are these swing areas where there are Democrats elected in Republican states like Louisiana and Alaska and West Virginia,” Fortier said. “And in those places, those Democrats are in a very difficult position.”
Fortier also expects Republicans to be more motivated to vote.
“Midterm elections tend to be a little bit more of a Republican election,” Fortier said.
“More Republican voters show up. It is a smaller electorate than a presidential election. And for all those reasons I think the direction will be in the Republican direction. I think the big question is, is it enough in that direction to get control of the Senate?” he said.
But Republican strategist Neil Newhouse is among those urging caution.
Newhouse said he expected Republicans to gain seats in both the House and the Senate, but whether they can gain the six seats they need in the Senate is simply too close to call at this point.
“Guys, we have a long ways to go,” Newhouse said. “I mean, a lot of stuff can happen in this race. The Senate is not yet decided.”
A complicating factor is that some Democrats are proving to be resilient.
Senator Kay Hagan holds a slight lead in North Carolina, one of a handful of states that will decide which party holds the Senate majority come January.
And Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sounds a bit hopeful as he notes some recent improvement in Obama’s poll rating thanks to his efforts to go after Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
“We’ll look at what happened with ISIS [another name for the Islamic State group] and Syria and Iraq and it might represent a point where the president edged up nationally,” Greenberg said.
Economy, foreign policy
But voters still have doubts about the president’s handling of both the economy and foreign policy, and that could have a big impact in the November voting.
“His handling of foreign affairs got better ratings than his overall job ratings for almost his entire first term,” said Michael Dimock, a public opinion expert with the Pew Research Center in Washington.
“And now, in his second term, that is inverted. Foreign policy is sort of a drag on his overall standing, not a lift,» Dimock said.
The election stakes are huge for Obama.
Having to deal with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate for his final two years in office could make it much more difficult to both pass legislation and confirm administration nominees.