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Republicans Hope for Gains in Midterms Elections

FILE - Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Diaa Bekheet/VOA).

With less than seven weeks to go until the November midterm congressional elections, Republicans have a multitude of options as they close in on their goal of winning control of the U.S. Senate.

Democrats find themselves playing defense in a number of states won by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and the face the daunting prospect of trying to rally their core supporters to get out and vote in November at a time when President Barack Obama’s public approval ratings are hitting new lows. This election is the Republican’s best chance to retake the Senate after failing in the previous two elections, and they know it.

This year’s Senate election map could turn out to be a nightmare for Democrats, who currently hold a 55 to 45 seat edge. Republicans are heavily favored to take over Democratic seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, which would get them three of the six seats they need to gain to win a majority.

The additional three pick-ups they need would have to come from races in seven states: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Their best opportunities seem to be in three states easily won by Mitt Romney two years ago: Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana.

All of these races seem fairly tight at the moment and that gives Democrats some hope that somehow they will be able to hang on to their Senate majority.

Some Democratic incumbents like Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mark Udall in Colorado are showing some political resilience.

But it may turn out to be the case that Republicans simply have too many opportunities to make gains, particularly if some of the Democratic candidates stumble in the final weeks of the campaign.

John Fortier, a political analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the question isn’t whether Republicans will do well in November, but how well.

“One, midterm elections tend to go against the president no matter what,” he said. “Two, the president isn’t doing so well in public opinion polls. He is at about 40 to 42 percent of people thinking he’s doing a good job. And third, midterm elections tend to be a little bit more of a Republican election. More Republican voters show up and it is a smaller electorate than a presidential election. So for all those reasons I think the direction will be in the Republican direction.” Fortier said, adding that he thinks Republicans will win the six Senate seats they need for a majority, though “they will get it by a narrow margin.”

Despite the Republican optimism there are voices urging caution.

Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s political guru, says there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Republican drive for a Senate majority is still in doubt.

Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Senate Democrats have outraised Republicans during this election cycle and have put the money to good use, attacking Republican challengers and bolstering Democratic challengers. Rove says Republicans will have to step up their efforts to ensure victory in November.

Some respected prognosticators like Stuart Rothenberg see the beginning of a Republican wave that would lead to a gain of seven or eight Senate seats and six to 12 seats in the House of Representatives, where Republicans already have a majority.

But other pollsters and pundits including Charlie Cook say the battle for the Senate remains too close to call and will probably stay that way right through Election Day on November 4.

Stakes for Obama

No one has more at stake in this year’s midterm voting than President Obama. Republican control of both the House and Senate during his final two years in office could severely restrain his agenda and could make it difficult for appointees to get confirmed by the Senate.

It would also give Republicans a chance to set the agenda over the next two years and could make them more competitive in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Media attention will also focus on the early stages of the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign as several incumbent Republican senators and governors consider the possibility of running for the White House in a nomination race that at the moment appears to be wide open.

Democrats are concerned about the president’s low public approval ratings and fear that could keep voter turnout low among their core supporters, especially minority and women voters. Analysts say there is a long trail of evidence that shows a correlation between low presidential approval ratings and a poor performance by the president’s party in midterm elections.

University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato said that in the 38 midterm elections held since the start of the American Civil War, the president’s party has lost an average of 33 House seats. That high a figure is not likely this time primarily because the reconfiguration of House seats in recent years have created far fewer competitive races.

IS as political wild card

Congress is now on record in support of President Obama’s strategy to go after Islamic State militants in the Middle East, even though many lawmakers from both parties expressed reservations.

But the issue remains a political wild card with the midterm elections fast approaching.

Many liberal Democrats in the House opposed the administration’s request for support, wary of entangling the U.S. in another endless struggle in Iraq and possibly Syria. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a leading liberal, worries that the campaign against IS “could open the door to the U.S. once again being involved in a quagmire, being involved in perpetual warfare.”

On the other side, some Republican hawks have criticized the administration’s approach as too timid, especially the president’s insistence in recent days that the U.S. will not deploy significant ground forces as part of the mission. Republican Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana told the Wall Street Journal, “If we’re going to go in, I believe we need to go all in.”

President Obama saw the votes of support in both the House and Senate as proof that the country is united behind his strategy of using U.S. air power against ISIL forces and working with partners in the region to build a credible ground force. The president said the congressional votes of support “Shows the world that Americans are united in confronting the threat from ISIL.”

The president seems to be trying to thread a course somewhere between those on the left of his party who remain bitter over the Iraq experience during the Bush administration and Senate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who continue to push for a more interventionist approach to the IS threat.

Analyst Fortier says it appears to be a case where the public got ahead of the president in recent weeks on dealing with the IS threat.

“You’ve seen this change in public opinion where yes, there is still a war-weariness among parts of the electorate,” he said. “But there is also a much stronger feeling that we really have to be worried about the threat of terrorism, the threat of ISIL, and that the president isn’t doing so well in this regard.”

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that the public is losing confidence in President Obama’s handling of terrorism and foreign policy in general.

For the first time, more Americans now disapprove of the president’s handling of terrorism than approve of it. In addition, 58 percent of voters in the last poll disapprove of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, up ten points from last month’s poll.

Congress will return to debating the president’s war powers in dealing with IS when it reconvenes after the election, and Fortier said President. Obama will have to continue to tend to the political challenges in maintaining support for the effort.

“I think the president has to thread the needle,” Fortier said. “Some on the right will say the president is not doing enough and that we need boots on the ground or it is just an ineffective plan. That’s the argument. And on the left there is worry that he is moving back into Iraq.”

It’s too early to know what impact the U.S. campaign against IS will have on the midterm elections in November.

But voters seem to be paying attention far more closely to President’s Obama’s handling of national security and foreign policy than they were previously, raising the possibility of both political risk and reward for the president his fellow Democrats depending on how the campaign against the IS proceeds in the weeks ahead.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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