Skim the news nowadays and you're bound to encounter two political storylines seemingly at odds with each other. They appear side by side in major news outlets; sometimes even in the same headline. In the first storyline, the Republican Party is at war with itself, divided between establishment and tea party, staring down its own demise as the nation's demographics change and majorities of Americans embrace Democratic positions on gun rights, immigration, marriage equality, and other important issues.
Yet in the second storyline, the GOP is ascendant, poised to grow its majority in the House of Representatives and—more significantly—win back control of the US Senate in the 2014 midterms. Senate Republicans are already planning their majority agenda, divvying up committee chairmanships.
How can this be?
News stories galore have explored one or the other of these narratives, but never reconciled them. Here's how the Republican Party is on the brink of a meltdown…yet on track to retake Congress in November.
Luck of the Draw
The GOP is on pace for major gains in 2014, in part because of luck. Democrats stand little chance of winning back the House. They would need to erase the GOP's 17-seat majority, while successfully defending their own members, including 13 incumbents in toss-up races. (RealClearPoliticsrates only three House GOP races as toss-ups, which has at least something to do with Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts at the state level.)
The real action this year is on the Senate side. And looking at the 2014 Senate electoral map, this much is clear: Republicans were dealt a good hand.
There are 36 Senate seats up for grabs this year, and the GOP needs to pick up 6 of them (while defending those it now controls) to reclaim the majority. Seventeen of those 36 seats are held by Democrats running for reelection, and 4 are open seats once held by Democrats. The Republicans, on the other hand, have 12 Republican incumbents up for reelection and three open races for seats previously held by Republicans. So that's 21 seats the Democrats must defend to 15 for the Republicans.
With fewer seats to defend, the Republican Party and right-leaning super-PACs and nonprofits have more leeway to invest in advertising and voter mobilization to flip seats now held by the Democrats.
The Obama Factor
President Obama's popularity is in the tank. At the moment, a paltry 43 percent of Americans say he's doing a good job; his approval rating hasn't touched 50 percent since June 2013. Those numbers have a significant effect on his party's prospects in 2014.
Historically, the performance of the president's party in midterm elections tracks closely with that president's own standing. Unpopular Obama? Expect a dismal election cycle for Democrats.
On this subject, we turn to the generic congressional ballot, which pits a hypothetical "Democrat" against a hypothetical "Republican." FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver calls the generic ballot the "single best measure of the national political environment." The Democrats need a lead in the generic ballot to minimize their losses this fall. Right now, however, the generic ballot shows Democrats and Republicans in a dead heat—bad news for the Ds. And as FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten recently pointed out, the president's party almost always loses ground in the general ballot between the spring and fall of a midterm election year. In other words, the already grim outlook for the Democrats will likely worsen by Election Day.
Obama's sagging approval numbers could neutralize the party's advantage when it comes to voter turnout and demographics. Young people prefer the Democratic Party to the GOP in huge numbers—in 2012, Obama took 60 percent of the vote among those younger than 30. The same goes for minorities, who turned out in historically high numbers in 2012 and backed the president by huge margins. But this is an off-presidential year, independents are disappointed in Obama's second term, and excitement is muted among young and minority voters. For all these reasons, it will be harder to mobilize Democratic voters on Election Day.
On the GOP side, the party's base of older white voters is angry. They're ticked off about Obamacare, and they're eager to express their outrage at the ballot box. Even though white voters' share of the electorate continues to shrink every four years, poor turnout among young people and minorities and high turnout by the GOP's base spells success for the Republican Party.
"The Sixth-Year Curse"
Don't blame Obama entirely for the potential Republican takeover of the Senate. History, too, is very much on the GOP's side.
Young and minority voters have a habit—Obama or not—of skipping midterm elections. As political analyst Ronald Brownstein pointed out, young voters made up 19 percent of all voters in the seven presidential elections between 1984 and 2008. But two years after each of those elections, young voters' share of the electorate sunk to 13 percent—a big enough drop to put a dent in the Democrats' chances.
Since 2002, the same has been true of minority voters. "One reason Democrats were routed in 2010," Brownstein writes, "is that the minority share of the vote dropped 3 full points from its 26 percent level in 2008."
For a combination of reasons and circumstances—scandals, economic downturns, fragile political coalitions—history does not favor the party of the president during his sixth year in office. In five of the last six second-term midterms, the party in control of the White House lost, on average, six Senate seats and 29 House seats, according to the political analyst Charlie Cook. In fact, no president dating back to the Civil War has picked up Senate seats for his own political party, writes the scholar Colleen Shogan. Only President Bill Clinton in 1998 managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible, breaking even in the Senate and gaining five seats in the House.
So…Do The Democrats Have Any Hope?
A glimmer, maybe. On the House side, Democrats would need another headline-grabbing GOP debacle—a major political scandal, another gridlock-caused shutdown—to see their fortunes rise. It's happened before: The many overreaches by the Newt Gingrich-led House in the mid-1990s helped the Democrats gain seats in the 1998 midterms. On the Senate side, Democrats are praying for more Todd Akins—that is, gaffe-prone, far-right candidates who, as Akin did in Missouri in 2012, win their primaries and then implode.
That's not as likely in 2014. The slate of establishment Republicans up for reelection—Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, among others—appear to have learned from 2012. They're taking their primary campaigns seriously by raising boatloads of cash and securing key endorsements. The only Republican incumbent who faces a viable challenger is Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. If the tea party only manages to knock off Cochran, and the rest of the GOP incumbents win their primaries, the odds of another Akin calamity are slim.
What Could 2014 Tell Us About the Future?
The 2014 midterms could worsen the pendulumlike pattern of US elections. In 2008 and 2012, we saw the rise of what some pundits call the "modern Democratic coalition"—young people, minorities, and women. That coalition turned out en masse to elect a Democratic president and Democratic lawmakers. But in off-year elections, youth and minority turnout drops off while a shrinking but fired-up Republican base springs into action to vote out the Democrats.
If this becomes a pattern, as Ronald Brownstein suggests it might, the effect on Congress and policymaking could be disastrous. "The problem," he writes, "is that these tectonic forces are pushing toward divided government precisely as the parties are displaying ever-less ability to make it work."
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court's five conservative justices struck down the so-called aggregate limit on campaign contributions—that is, the total number of donations within federal limits an individual can make to candidates, parties, and committees during a two-year election cycle. Before the court's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, there was a $123,200 ceiling on those legal donations; now, a donor can cut as many $2,600 checks to candidates and $5,000 checks to parties as he or she wants. (The $2,600 and $5,000 figures are the maximum direct contributions a donor can give.)
The court's decision specifically dealt with the federal aggregate limit, but legal experts say McCutcheon will also void similar campaign finance laws in 11 states and the District of Columbia. "The McCutcheon opinion is right from the Supreme Court and what the Supreme Court said is state aggregate limits on top of the federal limit are unconstitutional today, unconstitutional yesterday, unconstitutional 20 years ago," says David Mitrani, an election lawyer who specializes in state campaign finance law.
Mitrani says the impact of McCutcheon on state-level laws will vary depending on how low a state's aggregate limit was. Rhode Island and Wisconsin, for instance, limited donors from giving more than $10,000 per calendar year to state political committees. "There are going to be pretty big changes in how money flows into those states," Mitrani says. In New York State, however, Mitrani says he doesn't expect as big of an impact when the existing aggregate limit was set at $150,000 a year.
Here are the 11 states (plus DC) where aggregate limits are now likely gutted thanks to the Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday released its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the blockbuster money-in-politics case of the current term. The court's five conservative justices all agreed that the so-called aggregate limit on the amount of money a donor can give to candidates, political action committees, and political parties is unconstitutional. In a separate opinion, conservative justice Clarence Thomas went even further, calling on the court to overrule Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that concluded it was constitutional to limit contributions to candidates.
In their dissent, the court's four liberal justices called their colleagues' logic "faulty" and said it "misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake." The dissent continues, "Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today's decision eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."
The decision is a boon for wealthy donors, a potential lifeline for the weakened Democratic and Republican parties, and the latest in a series of setbacks dealt by the Roberts court to supporters of tougher campaign laws. Here's what you need to know.
How'd this happen? In the 2012 election cycle, a wealthy Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon tried to make donations in the amount of $1,776 to 27 right-leaning congressional candidates. Not so fast, replied the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the nation's campaign finance watchdog.
Not only does the FEC cap the amount of money a donor can give to, say, Joe Schmo for Congress ($2,600 per election in 2013-14) or the Democratic National Committee ($32,400*), the FEC also puts a ceiling on the number of within-the-limit donations a donor can make in a single election cycle. In the 2012 cycle, the aggregate limit for a donor like McCutcheon was $117,000 in donations to campaigns, PACs, and party committees. (To be clear, the PACs in this instance are of the traditional variety, the ones that have been around since the 1940s, not the super-PACs ushered in after the 2010 Citizens United decision.)
McCutcheon didn't like the FEC telling him he could give $1,776 to 26 congressional candidates but not 27. (That would've exceeded the aggregate limit for candidate donations, which at that time was $46,200.) So he sued the FEC, and the Republican National Committee later joined his case as a coplaintiff.
After this decision, how much can Shaun McCutcheon give? Hypothetically, a single donor can now contribute as much as $3.5 million, to be divvied up between candidates, PACs, and political parties. No single entity could receive any more than the legal limits, and when you add up all the contributions a donor could potentially make without the aggregate limits, you get $3.5 million. (The overall aggregate limit was raised to $123,200 for the 2014 cycle.)
Who benefits from the decision? This one's easy: Politically motivated rich people, the types who can afford to cut six- or seven-figure checks.
We have a pretty good idea who these people are. An analysis by the Sunlight Foundation identified 20 donors of so-called hard money (campaign donations made within federal limits) who might be "most likely to exceed" if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of McCutcheon. They include Stephen Bechtel, the retired chairman and co-owner of the contracting firm Bechtel Corporation; investor Charles Schwab; leveraged-buyout billionaire John W. Childs; and Ellen Susman, a Texas-based donor and fundraiser backing President Obama.
The people who stand to benefit from McCutcheon are also the wealthy few who bankroll super-PACs on both sides of the aisle. According to the left-leaning think tank Demos, almost 60 percent of all super-PAC funding in the last election cycle came from 159 donors—that's two coach buses of people—who'd given $1 million or more. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson alone reportedly gave $150 million in the 2012 election cycle. This Million-Dollar Donors Club rules the world of super-PACs, and critics of the McCutcheon ruling fear they'll now rule the world of candidates, PACs, and political parties, too.
What's more, the parties and Congress itself could benefit from the ruling. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, super-PACs and political nonprofits (and the consultants who run them) have gorged on million-dollar donations because they can raise and spend unlimited cash. Political parties cannot rake in the cash so freely, and they've struggled as a result. University of California-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who did not support McCutcheon's cause, nonetheless has argued that the decision could reinvigorate the parties and maybe scale back the gridlock crippling Congress.
What are the reactions to the McCutcheon decision? Campaign finance reformers fear the ruling will lead to more political corruption and more dependence—within Congress and on the campaign trail—on the very wealthiest Americans. They also worry that this is another bad precedent that could lead to the erosion of what's left of the nation's campaign finance laws. "The Supreme Court majority voted in McCutcheon today to license the further corruption of our democracy," says Fred Wertheimer, president of the pro-regulation group Democracy 21. "The Court re-created the system of legalized bribery today that existed during the Watergate days."
Those who supported Shaun McCutcheon hailed the decision as a step in the right direction. Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted, "Today's McCutcheon decision from the Court is important 1st step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees." And Dan Backer, a conservative attorney who first persuaded Shaun McCutcheon to challenge the aggregate limits, tweeted: "FREEEEDOMMMMM!!!!"
What comes next? Although the court's majority opinion in McCutcheon, written by Roberts, blew up the FEC's aggregate limits, it did not take a broader swipe at campaign finance restrictions in general. Court watchers feared a decision in McCutcheon that would open the door to future legal assaults on the bedrock of campaign finance law: direct contribution limits, such as the $2,600 limit to candidates, the $5,000 limit to PACs and party committees, and so on.
Ever since the passage of those limits in the wake of the Watergate scandal, conservatives have wanted to repeal them. They argue that such limits infringe on individuals' right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Supreme Court precedent says that contribution limits are constitutional so long as they serve a governmental interest—namely, preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption. The high court has typically struck a balance between the First Amendment and combating corruption and its appearance.
However, for now, Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito have chosen not to question those basic contribution limits. Only Thomas, in his separate opinion, argued for overruling Buckley v. Valeo, which said those basic limits were constitutional. The question going forward is whether Thomas can convince his fellow conservatives to join his cause and demolish the bedrock of modern campaign finance laws.
Read the Supreme Court opinion's in McCutcheon v. FEC:
*This incorrectly said the contribution limit to party committees was $5,000. Return.
What do former Vice President Dick Cheney, billionaire megadonor Sheldon Adelson, and Republican activists and funders talk about—and applaud—when they're behind closed doors at a Las Vegas hotel? Bombing Iran.
This past weekend, the Republican Jewish Coalition held its spring leadership meeting at Adelson's Venetian hotel, where several possible 2016 contenders, including ex-Gov. Jeb Bush and current Govs. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich, showed up to kiss the ring of the casino magnate, who's looking to bankroll a viable Republican presidential candidate. Though the heavy-on-Israel speeches of the White House wannabes were open to the press, the keynote address delivered by Cheney on Saturday night was off-limits to reporters and the public. But Mother Jones has obtained a recording of Cheney's talk, during which he once again derided President Barack Obama on foreign policy, blasted the isolationists within his own party, assailed critics of the National Security Agency, and seemingly endorsed the idea of an Israeli strike against Iran.
One of the issues looming large at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the movement's three-day confab held just outside Washington, DC, is the "scandal" over the IRS singling out tea party groups (and other nonprofits) for additional scrutiny during the 2012 election cycle. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who spoke first on the main stage this morning, opened his speech with a jab at Lois Lerner, the ex-IRS official at the heart of the trumped-up controversy that has yielded no evidence to back up the right-wing claim that the White House sicced the IRS on tea partiers. (Lerner appeared for a second time before the House oversight committee yesterday, where she pled the Fifth Amendment.)
But Cruz's zingers paled in comparison to what Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, said at a panel titled "IRS Targeting Scandal: Protecting the Voice of the People":
People are dying in the streets in Ukraine. People being oppressed by the political regime. That's what the IRS was doing.
To refresh, at least 75 people were killed in the protests in Kiev, the bloodiest period in the country's history since the fall of the Soviet Union. Soon after, Russian military forces invaded and essentially seized the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine. In response, Western countries have imposed sanctions against people and organizations accused of challenging Ukraine's sovereignty. In short, it's a crisis of international proportions. The IRS controversy is not. This supposed scandal has, however, briefly resuscitated the flagging tea party, which may explain the movement's continued obsession with the issue.