The mid-term election has seen congressional races turn into contests of how much disagreement or distance candidates can achieve from the President who faces slumping approval ratings over intensified terrorist threats abroad and the specter of the Ebola virus spreading here.
The Pacific Northwest is no exception. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, thought at one point to be the most vulnerable member of the region's delegation, invited Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren to barnstorm for him, not Obama. And recent polls show Merkley has a double-digit lead in his re-election bid.
Here is a quick overview of the election:
Election 2014 - A Presidential Referendum
While the economy has improved and the unemployment rate is below 6 percent nationwide, the President's approval rating is in the toilet – 41% approve, 54% disapprove. As a reference point, Obama's rating is worse than Bill Clinton's (43/48) in 1994, the year Newt Gingrich sailed into power with his Contract with America. Facing these sturdy headwinds, the Democratic Party will likely pay a heavy price next Tuesday losing control of the Senate and approximately 10 seats in the House. If the GOP picks up nine seats, they would control the biggest majority in the House since the Truman Administration.
Turnout is the key and Republicans are angrier and more motivated this cycle. The barrage of negative news ranging from the rise of ISIS, another war in the Middle East and the mismanagement of the Ebola outbreak at the CDC are not the type of October stories Democrats want on the front page of newspapers or trending on social media.
The Obama Administration has done a poor job promoting its policy successes, framing the generally positive jobs numbers and avoiding missteps on domestic and foreign policy fronts. Add to the equation Senate GOP candidates are more mainstream than 2010. As you may remember the Witch from Delaware and Todd Akin's comments that women can somehow block unwanted pregnancies sunk the GOPs chances of two likely pickups. Lastly, Democrats are defending a number of deep red state Senate seats.
Republicans need six seats to take control of the Senate. Today, six Senate seats held by Democrats are polling "likely" Republican pickups, including Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, West Virginia, Louisiana and Montana. Iowa and Colorado are leaning Republican so it's plausible the GOP would have a three-seat majority. At this point, Democrats are hoping for a surprise upset in Georgia and hitching their wagon to an Independent in Kansas who is threatening incumbent Senator Pat Roberts. In the end, there are more paths for Republicans to take over the Senate and Democrats chances are dwindling. Nate Silver of the 538 blog puts the Republican's chances of a Senate takeover at 64.5 percent.
Politics in the Northwest
Even though results of the 2014 election will have a tremendous impact on the country, the lack of competitive races in the Northwest is notable. Merkley, who was supposed to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the region, is touting a 17-point lead in the polls. It's likely ballot initiatives in Oregon such as the legalization of recreational marijuana and GMO labeling will increase turnout in Merkley's favor. Despite millions of dollars in ads from outside groups such as the Koch brothers, missteps by the Monica Wehby campaign seem to be insurmountable.
In Oregon House races, Congressman Peter DeFazio is being inundated with last-minute third-party spending, but he has weathered similar storms in the past and will likely prevail in the contest. DeFazio, a populist Democrat with an independent streak, has squabbled with the Obama Administration over a number of items from transportation to forest management. DeFazio seems to fit his district very well and has maintained strong support since his first election nearly 30 years ago.
Congressman Kurt Schrader, who is typically on the wrong end of third-party expenditures, seems to have avoided the distinction this go round and should defeat his opponent, Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith, with a comfortable margin.
In Washington House races, with little likelihood of an incumbent loss, most of the attention is on the open seat to be vacated by retiring Congressman Doc Hastings. There is no chance of a Democratic pick up as the "top two" candidates are both Republicans, but the contest is getting nasty and pitting tea party activist and former Washington Redskin Clint Didier vs. state Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse. The race symbolizes the intra-party feud between moderates and those staunch Constitutionalists willing to stick to a cause without compromise.
Rising Influence in the NW
While the politics may be quiet, the increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress. My next update will focus on the roles and responsibilities of the Northwest's leading senators and congressional representatives.