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A Traditional Midterm Headache for Democrats

Democrats have had a nice run recently of interesting House recruits and new takeover opportunities resulting from open GOP seats. And yet, it probably won’t matter.

If history is any guide — and it usually is — the president’s recent problems have already overshadowed that good news for House Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, all but erasing any chances that the party can win back the House next year.

Sure, Republicans could easily overplay their hand, shutting down the government again or otherwise convincing voters that they are a greater threat to the nation’s economic health than are the Democrats.

Democrats will have opportunities to demonize congressional Republicans as soon as January and February, when Congress will need to take action to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government. They will have additional chances later in the year, when party leaders push other issues (immigration and possibly a higher minimum wage) that they hope will put Republicans on the defensive.

Any tea party victories over established Republican officeholders in primaries next year will also set off another round of stories (generated by reporters who easily gravitate to a familiar storyline and Democratic communications professionals) about how divided the GOP is and how extremists have taken over the party.

And if all that happens, Democrats might again have an opportunity to redirect the public’s attention away from the White House and back to the GOP’s performance in Congress during 2013 and 2014.

But that’s the point. The current trajectory of the midterms now strongly favors the GOP, putting the onus on Democrats to change what the 2014 elections will be about.

Unfortunately for Democrats, there is no sign that the public’s concern about the Affordable Care Act will be alleviated quickly. And even when the website finally is running as originally intended, questions about the law’s consequences are likely to persist through the midterms.

In addition, the normal buildup of fatigue with the president that often occurs in second terms will make it more difficult for President Barack Obama to sell his message beyond loyal Democratic voters.

The president will still be an asset as a fundraiser for Democratic campaign committees. The 14 fundraisers that he committed to earlier in the year, as reported by Roll Call in February, will raise funds that both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the DCCC can use to protect incumbents and target GOP seats.

But unless the president’s poll numbers rebound strongly and Democrats can change the focus of the midterms, many voters will see next year’s balloting primarily as another opportunity to send a message to the White House. And with surveys generally showing the president’s job approval in the low 40s, the message isn’t likely to be one of approval and enthusiasm.

But won’t the Republican Party’s disastrous image offset the president’s problems? After all, Obama’s job approval is far higher than that of congressional Republicans.

The answer is an unambiguous “no,” unless Democrats can morph next year’s elections from a referendum on the president’s performance into a referendum on congressional Republicans.

That happened in 1998 because of impeachment. But things are very different now.

President Bill Clinton’s job approval numbers were very strong throughout 1998 thanks to the growing economy. While the Monica Lewinsky scandal hurt the president’s standing briefly, a Washington Post survey released less than a month before the midterms found Clinton’s job approval at 67 percent, a stratospheric number.

Clinton’s strength certainly goes a long way to explaining the election results that year. Democrats gained five House seats (taking them from 206 seats to 211) and broke even in the Senate, even though they were defending 18 seats to the GOP’s 16 seats.

Obama’s current job approval number is about 25 points below Clinton’s October 1998 poll number, and the national political environment looks as if it will be less favorable for the president’s party next year than it was in 1998.

A small net House gain for Republicans in 2014, which seemed unthinkable only six weeks ago, is no longer impossible. And over in the Senate, the Democrats’ prospects are decidedly more inauspicious than they were in mid-October, during the shutdown. The Senate obviously is in play.

A “typical” midterm currently seems to be shaping up for next year. That means that the president will be a drag on his party’s nominees in competitive contests and Democrats will spend much of their time on the defensive, trying to convince voters that they should not base their votes on their dissatisfaction with Obama’s performance. (For the long-term trend, see Table 2-4 in Vital Statistics on Congress, here.)

Some Democratic campaigns may well be able to do that, and I’m certainly not suggesting that a disastrous midterm is in store for Democrats. It’s too early to make that judgment.

But the very disappointing Obamacare launch, combined with the public’s much greater doubts about the entire legislation and the president’s honesty and judgment, will likely mean another difficult election for Obama's party.