Beltway Insiders Pour Cold Water on GOP's Senate Chances

September 3rd, 2014 5:07 PM

On Tuesday night Mark Halperin and John Heilemann stopped by Charlie Rose’s PBS show to throw cold water on GOP hopes of re-taking the Senate as the co-authors of Game Change and current Bloomberg Politics editors spouted the typical inside-the-beltway view of the Republican Party’s 2014 chances.

Halperin claimed the GOP was hampered by having “no real message” whereas the Democrats could run on “keeping Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security” - basically the same ideas they have run on since the 1930s.  Heilemann also told Republicans to cool their jets. (Video after the jump)

“Six months ago, Republicans thought this would be a big wave build entirely around opposition to Obamacare. And what’s happened over the course of the last six months, as the law has become more accepted, as the problems with the web site were ironed out, as the enrollment numbers met their targets and exceeded them, and as Democrats found a way to talk about the popular parts of the law...the heat has come out of the issue.”

Never mind the fact that recent polls sponsored by CBS, Fox, CNN, Gallup, Quinnipiac and their own Bloomberg organization have found majorities of between 52 percent and 59 percent rejecting the health care law.


The downgrading of the GOP’s chances by Halperin and Heilemann began not long after Rose asked the pair for their overview of the midterms on the September 2 edition of PBS’s Charlie Rose.

CHARLIE ROSE: Midterm elections. Just give me an overview.

MARK HALPERIN: I think you can look at this in a lot of ways. I’d say one thing key for each party. For the Democrats, can they do enough mechanically, targeted messages from the president, the vice president, the Clintons and others to remake the electorate in these targeted Senate states and some of the governors races, where voters who don’t normally vote in midterms, younger voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, single women, turn out to vote in a midterm, that’s hard to do?

On the Republican side, they need a message. You need - Republican strategists will tell you they don’t think they can live up to the possibilities of running races in the sixth year of the president of the other party unless they stand for something that appeals to middle class and working class voters. Social issues, that leg of the Reagan stool, social issues largely not in their favor in most cases. Foreign policy, there’s a lot going on in the world, but you don’t see a lot of Republican strategists saying we’ll win this on foreign policy. What can they do on economics? And right now they’re against Obamacare, they are against a raise in the minimum wage. They have to figure out a way to be a party of ideas, and right now they are not.

ROSE: You completely confused me. Because I thought, I thought the Republicans were clearly going to win the House, like most people think they are. And have a real chance of majority control, and it was the Democrats who were on the defensive. You come here saying, no, the Republicans don`t know what they stand for.

HALPERIN: If the game is majority control of the Senate. And it really is. They’re gonna pick up maybe six House seats, maybe 12, but that range is pretty set. If the game is the Senate, there are three they’re almost certainly gonna win. They need three more. Go race by race today, and the next three are not obvious, and that is the game.

CHARLIE ROSE: And those three are - go ahead.

JOHN HEILEMANN, BLOOMBERG POLITICS: Well here’s I think to your point, Charlie. Six months ago there’s no doubt that people thought Republicans were in a perfect position to reclaim control of the Senate. Mark is right, that’s what the real story is.    

The story has really changed in these six months, and what has happened is we do not have a midterm election that looks like the previous two. In 2010, we had a big wave election. Very much unified, very big Republican year. In 2006, we had a big wave election, very big Democratic year. That’s not what the data shows about this election. What this data shows now is six months ago, Republicans thought this would be a big wave build entirely around opposition to Obamacare. And what has happened over the course of the last six months, as the law has become more accepted, as the problems with the web site were ironed out, as the enrollment numbers met their targets and exceeded them, and as Democrats found a way to talk about the popular parts of the law, that issue has not totally dissipated -- there are still many on the right and since Mark is also right about it being a turnout game -- there are a lot of Republicans who are still driven by anti-Obamacare sentiment, they will come out to vote against that one issue. But in the middle of the electorate, the heat has come out of the issue, and now it is very much a state by state thing.

You’re looking at, it’s not a wave election. You have a huge amount of unpopularity among both parties. Democrats and Republicans, incredibly unpopular; Republicans more unpopular as a party than the Democratic Party, which has helped Democrats. The economy is doing a little better. As I said, Obamacare has receded as an issue. There is no one galvanizing thing. Republicans, as Mark suggested, have failed to find the unifying theme, and the Democrats then have been able to engage in a kind of trench warfare, state by state, against a lot of Republican spending in a lot of cases. And are still, even these very vulnerable Democrats, still very much in the race in those races. So you’re looking at one of these nights where easily the Republicans could end up with 53 seats on election night, and they also could end up a couple of seats short.

A little later in the conversation Rose wondered if the growing unpopularity of Obama had been “played out” as a factor in the midterms. To which Halperin responded that it was “a big factor” but Republicans still had to beat “incumbents who aren’t scandal ridden.” He then went on to cite Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu as one of the tough candidates for the GOP to beat, despite the fact she has been embroiled in a couple of scandals.


ROSE: The point you made, which is sort of in this, the sixth year of the Obama two terms, that anti-Obama is not a decisive factor? That somehow that game has been played out or not?

HALPERIN: It’s a big factor, but look to win the majority of the Senate, and that’s what we’re talking about here, is the Senate races, right. You have to - the Republicans have to beat some number of Democratic incumbents, we don’t know the exact number, but some number. Hard to beat incumbents who aren’t scandal ridden. And are focused. All these incumbents are very focused and have been on keeping their job.

So yes, a lot of Republicans will turn out to be a check on the president, but to beat a well-known, in most cases pretty well liked incumbent Democratic senator, and well funded, you need a strong challenger. Some of these, Republicans got all the challengers they hoped to get, the establishment did, but none of those candidates have really proven themselves as giant killers incumbent beaters. There is no doubt that the animating principle will be on election day for many, many voters, will be a check on the president. But if the Democrats can change the electorate as I said, and if these incumbents can convince voters that they deserve another chance, another term, they may not get to majority.

I keep saying to people who say it will be a huge Republican year, of course they’ll take the majority because of the anti-incumbent Obama sentiment, go race by race. Tell me what the next three most likely ones are. You’re talking about beating Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or beating Mark Pryor in Arkansas or Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Mark Begich in Alaska.

After that, Halperin and Heilemann returned to the hackneyed theme of the “historically unpopular” GOP having no new ideas and being the party of no.

HALPERIN: Another page they [Democrats] are taking, which they must take and they can take because Republicans, as I said at the top, have no real message, which is they can say “we don’t have -- implicitly -- we don’t have that many new good ideas, but look, we’re for raising the minimum wage, we’re for equal pay for women, we’re for keeping Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and health care going. We’re for immigration” -- not that big an issue in most of these targeted races. But these economic issues that the middle class cares about, they can basically say, as Joe Biden likes to say, “Don’t judge us in comparison to the almighty, judge us in comparison to the alternative.”

And so they can say, “We’re for raising the minimum wage, that tests at about 70 percent. We’re for equal pay for women,” that tests real well too with polls. “We’re for preserving Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security,” that tests really well. Republicans don’t have the courage right now to, or the ideas to counter those things.

So the Democrats, even though the economy for a lot of Americans doesn’t feel better, they have got as President Obama had in 2012 the ability to say, “Forget everything else out there, just look at here’s what we are for in the economy, and your security, economic security. Here’s what they’re for.” That is a page you saw in the president and the vice president on Labor Day. That was a core of their speech, sounded very much like what the president talked about in 2012.

HEILEMANN: And there is a reason why Republicans are as unpopular as they are. At the congressional level they are historically unpopular. The Congress itself is historically unpopular. Congressional Republicans are historically unpopular. They have become associated in the minds of a lot of voters, and again, not Republican base voters who love them, but voters in the middle of the electorate, who might be undecided, might be persuadable, they have become associated with nothing but nihilism. That is what for a lot of voters, what they have seen. They saw it in the shutdown last fall and it hurt Republican candidates in the off-year elections in 2013, and then we saw it again this summer, when the immigration border crisis flared, you had Republicans calling for action, and then Congress not being able to do what they said they wanted to do, not being able to take action in that area. And then standing up and saying they wanted President Obama to take unilateral action, even though they were suing him at that time for taking too many unilateral actions.

And for a lot of voters who don’t watch politics up close in a really granular way, all they see is Republicans saying nein, nein, nein, nein, and not Herman Cain’s nine, but the German version, no. No, no, no to everything...And that is not the way to galvanize - that’s not the way to galvanize a wave election. You can’t do it if you have no affirmative message whatsoever.