By Peter Sullivan - 07/28/14 06:04 AM EDT
The economy is, finally, improving. But it is not helping Democrats much in the battle for control of the Senate.
The unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in late 2009, has dropped to 6.1 percent. The number of new jobless claims fell to an eight-year low this month, further raising hopes for a strengthening recovery.
The economy is even better in several of the states where Democrats are clinging to Senate seats. Unemployment is at 5.5 percent in Sen. Mark Udall’s Colorado, 5 percent in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s Louisiana and just 4.4 percent in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley is hoping to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
Yet races in those states are neck and neck. The traditional turnout advantage that Republicans enjoy in midterm elections, President Obama’s unpopularity and competing claims over who deserves credit on the economy are all weighing down the potential lift for Democrats.
“I think certainly the lowering of the unemployment rate, the increase in value in the stock market and a generally brighter prospect for the American economy should enhance the chances of the incumbent party,” said Rick Ridder, a Democratic strategist in Colorado. “That said, we haven’t seen it quite yet. It hasn’t really translated into a sort of vote share here in Colorado.”
Udall has focused not on the economy but on birth control, hitting Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican nominee, for his past support of “personhood” measures giving legal rights to fertilized eggs.
It’s a strategy intended to win over swing voters concerned about women’s rights. People who have just found jobs and benefited from the improving economy “are not necessarily the people that vote” in midterm elections, Ridder said.
Underlining Democrats’ turnout problems, a Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 76 percent of Republican supporters professed themselves to be “absolutely certain” to vote this fall, compared to 67 percent of Democratic supporters who said the same.
Some of this higher Republican enthusiasm for voting is fueled by passionate opposition to Obama.
The economy has not helped lift Obama, which in turn hurts Senate Democrats through the linkage between presidential approval and the fortunes of the party as a whole in midterm elections. Republicans, who need to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate, are confident that this November will be a referendum on Obama.
“The economy matters mainly in the effect it has on presidential approval,” said John Sides, a political scientist at The George Washington University who has helped develop a model to predict Senate election results. “Right now, Obama is not very high by historic standards for a midterm election.”
Iowa launched Obama on the path to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008, and its voters backed him in both his victorious general elections. But his approval rating in the state has now sunk to 40 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll.
Harkin argued that Obama’s approval levels would have only a “small effect” on Braley’s bid.
“Iowans are pretty independent voters,” Harkin said. “I always like to remind people that I won my Senate seat against an incumbent when Ronald Reagan was landsliding Iowa.”
(Harkin was first elected to the Senate in 1984, on the same day Reagan secured a second term by winning 49 states against Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale.)
Even if voters put aside their views of the president to focus on the improving state economy, it is not clear the advantage goes to Democrats.
In North Carolina, the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.3 to 6.4 percent in the past year, the fourth largest drop in the country.
Republicans say it is they, not the Democrats, who deserve the lion’s share of the credit.
The Republican nominee, Thom Tillis, is speaker of the state House of Representatives, and he touts the economic benefits of regulatory reforms and tax cuts passed under his watch.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan claims that Tillis supported the federal government shutdown in October, and she cites its effect on the economy.
“Both Hagan and Tillis presumably would be able to point to the improved economy and the improved job numbers as a sign of why each of them is qualified to carry on,” said Courtney Crowder, a Democratic strategist who advised Obama’s campaign in the state in 2012.
The situation is reversed in Kentucky, where the economy remains weak, but Democrats are looking to unseat a Republican incumbent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes is seeking to blame the economic problems on McConnell. She has seized on comments he made to a local newspaper, The Beattyville Enterprise, in April, in which he said economic development was an issue for the state capital, not him.
“Economic development is a Frankfort issue,” McConnell said. “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.”
McConnell later responded that his remarks were “lost in translation” and jobs are “a top priority.”
Grimes launched an ad last week where an unemployed coal miner asks McConnell why he made the comment.
But Jim Cauley, former campaign manager for Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, said it is hard to blame individual legislators for economic problems.
“I don’t know, with a legislator, how you pin that on them,” he said.
Cauley, who also managed Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, said opposition to the president in the coal-mining areas of the state is another obstacle.
“They don’t like the guy,” Cauley said. “You could create all kinds of jobs and they wouldn’t believe it was him.”