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It Won't Be Obama's Fault When the Democrats Lose the Senate

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats have known that 2014 would be a challenging election cycle since November 2008, when, buoyed by an economic crisis that began under an unpopular Republican president, they managed to capture Senate seats in Republican strongholds like Alaska and North Carolina, and hang on to seats in conservative-trending states like Arkansas and Louisiana.

They knew those seats would be up for grabs again six years on, and that even the most optimistic assumptions—a growing economy, an unpopular opposition—wouldn’t lend Democratic incumbents as much propulsive force as President Obama’s candidacy had just provided them.

The Republican rout in 2010 brought the dangers Democrats would face in 2014 into stark relief. To avoid another midterm wipeout, they’d need to identify their marginally attached voters and make sure they didn’t stay home once again. The story’s been the same ever since. Just this week, Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democrats’ Senate reelection committee told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, "Turnout is required but not sufficient. We must engage in trying to change the electorate."

To maintain control of the Senate, Democrats will need a lucky draw on election night. Not an impossible one, but not a probable one either. The likelihood that they'll miss has allowed the party’s critics to simplify the plot of the election, before the outcome is knowable. Since the plan hasn’t obviously worked, then it must have been a failure everywhere. National Journal’s conservative columnist Josh Kraushaar argues that “Obama is the main reason Republicans are well-positioned to win control of the upper chamber next Tuesday. And Democrats' biggest strategic mistake in this election is that most candidates didn't run away far and fast enough.”

As intuitive as it might seem, the Democrats’ unwillingness to maximize internal disarray doesn’t actually explain their electoral troubles. But it is nonetheless worth examining how well or poorly they’ve walked the fine line they’ve drawn for themselves. Obama’s unpopularity is a drag on Democrats, and there is an obvious tension between motivating midterm drop off voters and keeping Obama at arms length, which some Democrats have handled better than others.

But even if Democrats lose control of the Senate Tuesday (or after runoff elections this winter) you can make a very strong argument that they walked that line nimbly. That the strategy was sound, even if it wasn’t ultimately sufficient to preserve their Senate majority. That the key to understanding a Republican victory doesn’t lie in thumb-sucking about the Democratic Party’s inability to manage the challenge of Obama’s unpopularity.

Pick almost any state that Democrats are contesting at random, and you can find evidence to support this thesis. Let’s start with incumbents.

In 2012, Obama lost Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina by 13, 24, 17, and 3 points respectively. Right now in the states' Senate races, also respectively, polling aggregators show Mark Begich trailing challenger Dan Sullivan by one to four points; Mark Pryor trailing challenger Tom Cotton by four to eight points; Mary Landrieu trailing Bill Cassidy by four to seven points; and Kay Hagan beating Thom Tillis by one to three points.

These Democrats are all outperforming Obama by significant margins, in states where Republicans have natural advantages, and in a year in which those advantages should magnify Democratic weaknesses.

The counterpoints to this observation can be found in Colorado, Iowa, and (to a lesser extent) New Hampshire. Obama won those states in 2012 by four, six, and six points respectively. Right now, also respectively, Mark Udall is trailing challenger Cory Gardner by about two points; Bruce Braley (running to replace retiring Tom Harkin) is trailing Joni Ernst by one to two points; and Jeanne Shaheen is leading Scott Brown by only one to two points.

The conservative narrative of a nationwide Republican wave is incubating in these states, where Democrats are underperforming Obama. It must therefore be true that allegiance to Obama is a decisive factor everywhere.

But that narrative cannot account for the GOP’s remarkable underperformance in Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky. Mitt Romney won those states by eight points, 22 points, and 23 points respectively. Right now, also respectively, Republican David Perdue is leading Democrat Michelle Nunn by two to six points; GOP incumbent Pat Roberts is running behind Independent Greg Orman by about a point; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by three to five points. Grimes is outperforming McConnell’s 2008 challenger Bruce Lunsford, who lost by six points in a Democratic wave year. Kraushaar attributes this better-than-the-fundamentals resilience to “her attempts to appease both the party base and more-conservative voters in her state,” which have been “painfully awkward.”

If I had to, I’d put money on Democrats losing all three. But you have to be really invested in a certain conception of politics to explain races that close in states that red as evidence of a national anti-Obama wave. Or to attribute their losses to insufficient Obama bashing.

If roles, parties, and states were reversed, and Democrats were barely hanging on to Senate seats in (for instance) California, Washington, and Connecticut, the obvious story wouldn’t be that Republicans were compounding their disadvantages. It would be that Republicans were outperforming fundamentals in Democratic strongholds. If those Republicans went on to lose anyhow, it wouldn’t support the view that their strategies were flawed, or executed poorly. It would rather suggest that even a good, well executed campaign strategy usually can't overwhelm the basic nature of the electorate.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a sentence written by Greg Sargent to Guy Cecil. It has been updated with the proper quotation.