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In Making Play for the House, President Obama Could Lose the Senate

Second-term setbacks force Obama to sound more conciliatory toward GOP.

President Obama’s advisers have telegraphed their goal to win control of the House in 2014, which would give the president unfettered control to advance his favored policies. But the bigger concern for the White House should be the more realistic possibility that they could lose the Senate in 2014 – an outcome that’s only enhanced by the president’s second-term strategy focusing on rallying the base over centrist governance.

It’s no coincidence that on Wednesday, in a welcome about-face, Obama belatedly engaged a charm offensive with Republicans, inviting leading senators to a private dinner and pow-wowing with Paul Ryan for lunch on Thursday to discuss the budget. This, from the president who predicted that he would be able to work with the GOP only after he won reelection, arguing their “fever may break” upon his victory. 

All of this is a result of the Republicans (unexpectedly) scoring twin victories in the battle over the sequester, getting their cuts all while pressuring the president’s popularity downward. The White House overreached in parading Cabinet secretaries to exaggerate doom-and-gloom consequences. And the public is demonstrating its frustration, handing Obama new lows in his job-approval rating since the election.

This week’s Quinnipiac poll shows the president's job-approval rating dropping to 45 percent, his lowest since winning a second term. More ominously, a record-high 46 percent of Americans said they are “very dissatisfied” with the direction of the country – an even higher number than the pollster found in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, when voters feared the economy was in free fall. All told, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a worrisome statistic for the party in power. The trend lines are similar from all the polls released in the last week.

That has necessitated a change in the strategy, or at least the bluster, from the White House. Put simply, a president with a middling job-approval rating, won’t be able to net 17 House seats – not when there are only 16 Republicans left in districts Obama carried. Remember: Democrats will also be on defense; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week named 26 of the party's own members who are vulnerable as part of its Frontline assistance program.

If Obama’s job-approval ratings remain below 50 percent in 2014, the chances increase that the Senate will be in play. Next year’s electorate could look more like 2010 than 2012 -- the consequence of a boom-bust cycle, when the Democrats’ base turns out for Obama, but not for downballot Democrats. The president will be a valuable asset helping the party committees fundraise, but he won’t be welcome in most of the key Senate battlegrounds.

Midterms are rarely favorable to second-term presidents, and this one is unlikely to be an exception. Democrats can’t afford to lose more than five Senate seats (net), and the party is defending seven seats in states that Mitt Romney carried, six of them by double-digit margins. Mobilizing base support on behalf of the president’s pet issues, such as gun control and immigration, will do more harm than good in these conservative strongholds, where Obama is deeply unpopular.

The Democrats’ hope is that weak, far-right challengers will cost Republicans again. It’s not unrealistic, given the growing GOP divisions and their record of the last two elections. But, so far, they’re on track with recruiting in these deeply conservative states. West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced her candidacy early and hasn’t drawn any primary opposition, despite the early hype. Rep. Bill Cassidy would be a credible candidate against Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, and has already stockpiled $2 million in his campaign account. Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds is a formidable nominee, and if Sen. Tim Johnson retires, Democrats may need to referee a potential primary between his son Brendan and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Republicans are growing more optimistic that freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a favorite among national party leaders, may challenge Sen. Mark Pryor. (Fears of an unelectable tea-party nominee are higher in Alaska; and in Montana, Republicans’ best hope may be with a former state senator.)

Don’t expect any of these targeted senators to be pushovers. All have proven their staying power in inhospitable states. Pryor and Landrieu, in particular, have proven appeal across party lines, and ramped up their operations early to prepare for tough campaigns. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, under the leadership of Guy Cecil, has proven to be the gold standard of campaign committees, winning seats last cycle when most observers (including me) expected Republican gains. Republicans need the equivalent of an inside straight, sweeping out the red-state Democrats.

But given Obama’s decidedly liberal positioning to start his second term, the prospect of a midterm GOP wave is very real. The Supreme Court is taking up the hot-button social issues of gay marriage and affirmative action, raising the likelihood of an aggravated conservative base in Republican strongholds. In Southern states, Democrats benefited from high African-American turnout in 2008, which is unlikely to be replicated for the 2014 midterms. And even the best-staffed campaign committee can’t alter forces out of their control. Just ask former DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen, who presided over major House gains in 2008 and historic losses two years later.

Math can get in the way of unbridled confidence. The White House is confident that political pressure is vital to accomplishing its goals. But it should take a closer look at the 2014 map before assuming Obama can break Republicans at the ballot box.