Two states where Democrats look doomed

2013-07-23 12:10
Delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. (File, AP)

Delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. (File, AP)

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Chicago - It's still well over a year to go until the USA returns for its midterm elections, which will decide the near futures of most state government, plus the two chambers of the federal government, the House of Representatives and the US Senate.

And while 2012 may have been a year of triumph, 2014 is unlikely to work out so nicely for Democrats, notwithstanding the feted growth of the (geographically specific) Latino demographic that was one of the keys in Obama holding onto the presidency last November – although it is unlikely to help Democrats at the national level all that much in 2014.

The 435-member House of Representatives is unlikely to change hands. Democrats won 1.4-million more votes than Republicans for this body in 2012 and still suffered a deficit of 33 seats (234-201) largely due to the way the congressional districts have been drawn, and the partisan nature of them. Of the 63 closest results from last year (in which the loser of the contest was within 10% of the winner), Republicans hold 33 of those seats and Democrats 30, meaning Democrats need to win virtually all of the close contests to make up that 33-seat majority.

Add to the fact this is an off-year election, in which a turnout bias will work against Democrats, and it’s hard to see just how this calculation can work. It’s certainly not impossible, but I think you’d get safe money on Republicans retaining the House.

The upper chamber, the Senate, is going to be the hot contest of next year’s election. Senators – two of which represent each state – serve six-year terms, so every two years around one-third of them are up for re-election. In this case, many Democrats are up because they were swept in along with the Obama wave in 2008, which meant that Democrats prevailed in states where they usually have not. Of the 33 seats being contested this election 20 are held by Democrats and only 13 by Republicans. (Note: currently 19 are actually held by Democrats because New Jersey’s seat was held by a Democrat who died a few weeks ago, and is being held by a Republican governor’s pick in the interim until a special election is held, whereby it will almost certainly return to Democratic clutches)

Of those 20 seats, Democrats are going to have to fight like dogs in seven of them, and when defending a five-seat majority, that’s not great territory to be in. Possible pickup opportunities are also rather unlikely, with the only solid shot against veteran Mitch McConnell, an expert campaigner who doesn’t defeat as much as destroy opponents, and a possible opportunity in Georgia. Democratic victories in either of these races would be unexpected.

But let’s take a look at where Democrats are going to struggle the most: South Dakota and Arkansas.

South Dakota

South Dakota is notoriously difficult territory for Democrats. In 2004 Republican John Thune beat sitting Democrat Tom Daschle while Daschle was serving as his party’s majority leader – the first time that happened since the 1950s.

In the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, South Dakota went for Republicans by 21.6%, 8.5% and 18% respectively. Democrats haven’t seen the governor’s mansion since 1987, and the Democrat who managed to represent the state in the US House of Representatives for three terms from 2004 until 2010 (Stephanie Herseth Sandlin) decided not to run. Tim Johnson, who currently holds the seat is also retiring next year, which means there will be no incumbent advantage for Democrats either. And the most likely Republican challenger for the seat is former governor Mike Rounds – a man who has a proven record running for statewide office, having done so successfully in 2002 and 2006.

Rounds is being helped by the decision of the state’s popular House representative, Kristi Noem, not to run, and he should sweep the GOP’s primary.

There’s more drama though: current Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, isn’t happy about who Daschle, who is still an influential member of the South Dakotan political framework, has pushed forward to be the Democratic nominee (former aide Rick Weiland). In fact Reid said at a press conference in May, “He’s not my choice”, because at the time Reid was backing Herseth Sandlin. You can imagine what Republican campaigners can do with the most senior Senator in the country saying he’s not interested in one of his own candidates.


In Arkansas, things look pretty bad for incumbent Senator Mark Pryor, in spite of the state recently being prepared to elect Democrats.
Pryor is in a state, however, that eschews the agenda of Barack Obama, and did so in the last two presidential elections: By 20 points in 2008, and a staggering 23.6 in November last year. The state also dumped a Democratic Senator, Blanche Lincoln, by more than twenty points, in 2010, for Republican John Boozman, as well as two of its then three Democratic House Representatives. Democrats failed to win either of them back in 2012, and then lost their other district in 2012 – which means Republicans hold all four of Arkansas’ seats.

Democrats can win in this state – Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is popular, according to polls, but doesn’t have the Obama tag hanging around his neck. Pryor does, especially when it comes to what Republicans are planning on making one of the features of this election cycle: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known popularly as Obamacare. Pryor was “the deciding vote” in the US Senate, and the programme polls badly in the state, and was one of the weapons used to defeat Lincoln in 2010. (It’s worth pointing out the Republican-dominated Arkansan legislature has decided to undergo one of the parts of Obamacare that is optional for states, which some pundits think may alleviate this attack, but I’m not convinced.) Pryor was also forced to spend money he didn’t want to when the lobby group Mayors Against Illegal Guns dropped an ad campaign in Arkansas slamming him for his vote against gun control measures earlier this year.

Pryor is going to be reliant on his constituencies to turn out, including African-Americans who vote disproportionately for Democrats.

However, in off-year elections African-Americans tend to vote at a lower rate, and even when the group turned out en masse nationally vote to in the 2012 election, the trend didn’t make it to Arkansas where less than half of black voters even bothered showing up. It wouldn’t be unfair to speculate this is going to fall even further for the midterms.

Polls already show Pryor down to prospective candidates across the board, and none of them are even officially running yet.

The bright spot for Pryor is that his popular father will likely be a massive weapon during his campaign – David Pryor represented Arkansas in the House of Representatives, the Senate and as governor (who was succeeded by a chap called William Jefferson Clinton in 1979). But his hopes probably rest on Republican primary voters in Arkansas picking a loony, the type of thing which is really what determined the Senate race in Missouri in 2012.

While neither South Dakota’s nor Arkansas’ US Senate seat is impossible to win in 2014, and there is a lot of time left during which much can happen, you’d have to be an extraordinary optimist to be a Democrat, and be excited about the prospects in these two states.

- News24 will be previewing the electoral races in the USA in the lead up to 2014.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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