2014 elections

An Election All About Obama

In many ways, the November 4 general election will be a referendum on President Obama, even though his name won't appear on any ballot.

In many ways, the November 4 general election will be a referendum on President Obama, even though his name won't appear on any ballot.

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.

What Congressional Bipartisanship Wrought

Fallout from the government shutdown last October is having wide ranging impact on the mood and actions of federal legislators in Washington, DC. The term compromise, a dirty word since 2010, has reemerged in the lexicon of American politics as both parties try to avoid lurching from crisis to crisis.

Washington DC, after all, is a town of self-interest and even the most novice political observer could see a continuance of governance by shutdown and showdown could jeopardize the GOP's control of the House and prevent a takeover of the Senate, which now is a distinct possibility in November elections.  

Thus, the GOP had every incentive to work with Democrats to craft a bipartisan compromise on the largest spending bill approved in years. Democrats also wanted government working again, as President Obama and the Democratic Senate seek to put forward a record of accomplishment before the 2014 election.

The second term off-year election is historically bad for the party controlling the White House. Democrats fear they could lose their slim five-seat majority in the Senate and even lose seats in the House. The prospect of a united Republican Congress in 2015 has plenty of Democrats losing sleep.

Wyden Could Be a Tax Panel Kingpin

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden could find himself chairing the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the next Congress following if Democrats can hold on to control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.Oregon Senator Ron Wyden may be next in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which overseas taxation, trade and Medicare. The one hitch is that Democrats will have to fight to retain control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Wyden's potential ascension is due to the announcement today that current Chair Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has decided not to seek reelection. Earlier, the ranking Democrat on the committee, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, said he was retiring.

The bad news for Wyden is that it may be hard for Democrats to retain those two Senate seats and a few others in the 2014 mid-term elections when there isn't a presidential race to activate all Democratic constituencies.

Elected to the U.S. House in 1980, Wyden moved into his first major chairmanship this term by taking the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It takes that long in seniority-based Congress to move to the front of the line.

For a small state like Oregon, having the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in Congress is a big deal. Former Senator Bob Packwood chaired Senate Finance in the early 1980s and engineered a major tax overhaul. At the same time, the late Senator Mark Hatfield chaired Senate Appropriations, which made the two Oregon senators among the hottest phone numbers in DC.