President Barack Obama will go before Congress Tuesday night to deliver the State of the Union address as both parties are gearing up for a bruising midterm election campaign.
Obama’s speech, which comes nine months before his second and final midterm election cycle as president, will provide fodder for his congressional supporters, opponents and those in between — vulnerable members, especially Senate Democrats who must separate themselves from the president to save their own seats.
Reactions from these members — spoken and unspoken — during Obama’s speech will likely prove instructive for the months ahead, November and beyond.
For Democrats in tough races, the president’s policy focus and performance this year could have an outsized role in whether they return to Capitol Hill. And for those Democrats running in red states, this speech can provide an opportunity to put distance between themselves and the president. As for the less common Republican incumbents in challenging races, Obama’s address could provide more opportunities to tie their opponents to an unpopular president.
Republicans appear to have a locked grip on the House majority, though Democrats hope to cut into the GOP’s 17-seat advantage in the 2014 elections. In the Senate, Democrats are clinging to a five-seat majority on a playing field that gives Republicans an advantage.
With that, here are Roll Call’s predictions for the top issues in the speech that will influence the races in 2014 — and which faces you should watch during the address.
Income Inequality, Unemployment Insurance and Minimum Wage
Top Democrats in both chambers have said they want to focus on income inequality as a policy and campaign issue in 2014. Democrats are banking on this message to help persuade swing voters and excite the party’s base — and the president is expected to make his strongest case yet Tuesday night.
Earlier this month, Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have extended lapsed jobless benefits to millions of Americans. But in North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana — home to three of this cycle’s most competitive Senate races — the unemployment rates are 7.4 percent, 7.5 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., fits the bill of a member who would benefit from a focus on jobless benefits or minimum wage increase, as opposed to the unpopular-for-now health care law.
In Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces both a Republican primary opponent and a strong Democrat in the general election, there is an 8.2 percent jobless rate. Plus, earlier this month, Obama announced that Southeastern Kentucky would be one of five targeted regions to launch the administration’s “Promise Zone” program, which seeks to spur economic growth in high-poverty areas.
Faces to watch:
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The Senate has already passed a comprehensive overhaul, and Speaker John A. Boehner has vowed that the House will move on an immigration policy change in some form. It’s a perfect dynamic for the president to pressure the GOP-controlled House to act.
Democrats expect Obama to push Republicans on the issue because the party views it as a win-win. If Republicans decline to move immigration legislation, then Democrats may be able to continue to capitalize on a burgeoning Latino voting population in 2014 and beyond.
What’s more, if House Republicans do act on immigration, it’s unlikely to be comprehensive. In the near-term, that could hurt Republicans in the West in districts with sizeable Latino populations.
That includes California Rep. Gary G. Miller, one of the most vulnerable House Republicans, who represents a district that is 49 percent Hispanic. Similarly, Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the loudest GOP voices for an immigration rewrite in Congress, represents a district with a population is 40 percent Hispanic and faces a somewhat challenging race in 2014.
Faces to watch:
Rep. Gary G. Miller, R-Calif.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.
Health Care Rewrite
Last year, the president’s health care law created more consternation for Democrats than perhaps any other issue. Senate Democrats running in Republican-leaning states have some reason to worry about the fumbled rollout of the plan in 2014, as well. But as more Americans continue to enroll via the exchanges, other outstanding issues could gain more political traction. Of particular note is a Supreme Court-issued stay in a case brought by a group of Catholic nuns against the law’s contraception mandate and whether Obama will tout that mandate in front of the justices and to potential conservative backlash. In spring 2012, Republicans pushed a partial repeal of the contraception mandate and failed. Now, with the GOP looking to be more sensitive to women, it’s unclear which party would be more imperiled by a repeat of this fight.
Every vulnerable Senate Democrat was in office when Congress passed its final bill in 2010 — and every one of them likely will face attacks from Republicans at home for those votes. Of course, while many House Democrats already paid a price for the support of the law, there are still more who are facing re-election and already feeling the heat this year. That includes Reps. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who is running for a 20th term, and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., who lost in 2010 but won her seat back in 2012.
Faces to watch:
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
Last year’s State of the Union address came a little more than a month after Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, and gun control legislation was a key feature of the president’s speech. A year later, Congress has failed to pass a single bill to address the issue.
Most Democrats will applaud any line from Obama about legislation that would expand background checks. But other Democrats from red states, who oppose further gun-control measures of any kind, would use the president’s words to create more separation between themselves and him.
Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were two Democrats who voted against last spring’s bipartisan background check expansion legislation. They not only voted against it, but did so very publicly, proving their pro-gun bona fides and creating separation from the president and then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was championing the issue.
Faces to watch:
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska