Politics Explained: 2014 Midterm Elections Primer

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Although it seems like much longer ago, two years have passed since President Obama’s reelection victory over Governor Romney, which means that the midterm elections are almost here. As we move into September, the campaigns for Senate and House races are kicking into full gear, and although Congress has achieved little in the past two years, a lot is at stake in November.

One of the most important factors in these midterm elections is Obama’s unpopularity. Since last November, the percentage of Americans disapproving of Obama’s job in office has been about 10 points greater than those approving. This will drag down Democrats in both the House and the Senate, especially as voters fatigue of having a Democrat in the White House for six straight years – this midterm effect is well documented in political science and holds well as a general rule.

At the moment, the Republicans hold a 233-199 majority in the House (with 3 vacancies). This majority is in little danger, and with the imminent retirement of a number of conservative Democrats in strongly Republican-leaning districts compounding Obama’s poor job approval numbers, Republicans should add to their numbers in the House.

The more interesting races will happen in the Senate, where Democrats currently hold a 55-45 advantage. There are a number of seats held by Democrats in Republican-leaning states that will be fiercely contested, meaning that control of the chamber could very well shift to the Republicans. In the cases of West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota, where the incumbent Democrats are retiring, polling shows that Democrats have little to no chance of winning those seats. That leaves eleven races that could reasonably be won by either side, eight of which are currently held by Democrats: New Hampshire, Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Kansas.

New Hampshire, Colorado, Michigan, and Iowa are all states won by Obama in 2012. Yet both New Hampshire and Colorado and swing states at the national level and although the incumbents are currently favored, strong Republican candidates Scott Brown, the former Senator from Massachusetts, and Rep. Cory Gardner have the potential to gain an upper hand if the political climate turns further against the Democrats. In Michigan and Iowa, the incumbent Democrats are retiring, and while the Gary Peters (D) is clearly favored in Michigan right now, Iowa is much closer (in part due to Bruce Braley’s (D) “farmer gaffe”). Democrats are slightly favored to win each of these seats, but if Democrats lose any of these four races, there is a good chance that they have already lost the Senate.

The next category consists of incumbent Democrats running for reelection in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012: Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas. I discussed these races in an article a year ago, and these are the key races that will ultimately decide the Senate. In Alaska, Mark Begich (D) is running a strong campaign, but in a state that is 12 points more Republican than the country at the presidential level, this race will almost certainly come down to election night (or maybe a few days later). In North Carolina, candidate Thom Tillis (R), who is currently the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, is not terribly popular in the state, but neither are Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and national Democrats; Democrats will need to mobilize black voters and young educated liberals to have a chance here. In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu (D) faces a strong challenger in Rep. Bill Cassidy (R). I am more pessimistic than others on her chances, and I strongly suspect she’ll lose. Finally, Mark Pryor (D) in Arkansas also faces a strong challenger in Rep. Tom Cotton (R), and while I wouldn’t bet on Pryor, his family name still resonates in Arkansas (his father was a popular governor and senator). If Democrats cannot win at least two of these four races – with Alaska and North Carolina the two easiest options – it is extremely unlikely that they will hold the Senate.

Democrats are confident about their chances in taking Georgia and Kentucky from Republicans, but these seats – particularly Kentucky – represent best case scenarios for Democrats rather than realistic possibilities. In these two races, the Democrats – Allison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia – are faring well so far, but their challenge is to win over 50% of the voters in Republican leaning states, and I just don’t see it happening unless national conditions improve significantly for Democrats.

Kansas is a special case – the Democratic candidate just dropped out of the race due to the presence of a strong independent candidate, Greg Orman. Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s (R) ultraconservative policies are very unpopular in the state, and he threatens to bring down other Republicans as he struggles to win reelection himself (the incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R) has his own problems with charges that he doesn’t really live in Kansas). If elected, Orman would be one of the most centrist candidates in the Senate, and he has declared he will side with whichever party wins the majority. Nonetheless, Kansas is a very conservative state and even though polling has shown a tight race between the two of them, Roberts should be slightly favored (at least until we see more polling with the new match-up)

Overall, despite having a six seat margin to work with, Senate Democrats are being weighed down by an unpopular president and need to win seats in areas that have become increasingly hostile to Democrats if they want to keep their majority. If every contested Senate race went the same way as they did in the 2012 presidential election, which was a favorable election for Democrats (i.e. a state that voted for Obama votes for the Democratic candidate and vice versa), Republicans would win 7 seats for a 52-48 advantage.

If I had to choose who would win today, I would expect Republicans to win Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, and North Carolina while Democrats take New Hampshire, Colorado, Michigan, Alaska, and Iowa, giving Republicans a 51-49 majority. Nonetheless, a lot will change between now and November 4 – in other words, I would expect at least a quarter of those picks to be wrong at the end of the day. At this point in 2010 and 2006, it was just becoming clear that waves were developing for Republicans and Democrats respectively, and the picture should become a lot clearer in the weeks to come. In the mean time, stay tuned for developments.


Image courtesy of extremetech.com


  1. Great article Arjun. I mostly agree with your predictions but I was wondering why you think Mark Begich is going to win in Alaska. It seems like his campaign has been losing a lot of momentum in the last few weeks.

    • Honestly, I wrote most of the article over a week ago (see: Labor Day primer) but didn’t finish it then… recent polling has shown Begich in a more precarious spot. All things equal, I still think he should be slightly favored to win, especially if the Walker/Mallot ticket for governor wins. But you’re right, things are certainly looking dicey for him.

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