Josh Kurtz: Will 2014 Be a Republican Year Nationally — and in Maryland?

By Josh Kurtz

If, as is generally the rule, California is a trend-setter, then Democrats from Westwood to Worcester County to the White House may have reason to worry about 2014. In a special election last week, Republicans flipped a seat in the California state Senate.

Special elections tend to have their own unique dynamics. This race took place in a highly competitive district in California’s Central Valley, and was decided by just 3 points. As a practical matter, it did not do much to the state of the state Senate: Democrats still hold a 28-12 supermajority. And the Democrat who was being replaced was pretty conservative anyway — in fact, he left the legislature to become a lobbyist for Chevron.

But in the current national political environment, the result ought to give Democrats the jitters. With all the scandals suddenly swirling around the Obama administration, it would not be surprising if the past few weeks in Washington prove pivotal to the overall narrative of the 2014 elections.

2014 is going to be a “six-year itch” election, meaning it will take place in the sixth year of the Obama presidency. Historically, those are bad elections for the incumbent party in Washington; the last time we had one, in 2006, Democrats grabbed control of both the U.S. House and Senate.

But with the national Republican brand so damaged, with President Obama and his team so cocky coming out of the election and inauguration, Democrats were making the plausible case that 2014 would be an atypical midyear election. In fact, some of the first calls Obama made on election night 2012 were to Democratic House leaders, telling them he was committed to flipping the House in 2014.

Well, that talk sure has diminished in the past couple of weeks. The trio of scandals engulfing the White House may not prove to be much, individually or collectively. Surely they are nowhere near the scale of Watergate or Iran-Contra, and maybe not even Whitewater.

But they are not going to go away soon, particularly with the GOP firmly in control of the House of Representatives. Obama’s agenda has been stopped dead in its tracks. And the dispirited and dormant Republican base is suddenly revived and smelling blood, energized by another opportunity to kick Obama around a few times more.

People who track House and Senate elections closely are already detecting that Democrats’ candidate recruiting efforts have slowed since the IRS, Benghazi and Associated Press scandals surfaced a couple of weeks ago. Republicans need to flip six seats to take control of the Senate in 2014, and two vacant Democratic seats are almost certain to change hands — in West Virginia and South Dakota. Add to that Democratic vacancies in such swing states as Michigan, Iowa and Montana, and potentially shaky Democratic incumbents in four states that Mitt Romney won in 2012 — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Then factor in that there are no clear Democratic pick-up opportunities, and a GOP Senate majority come 2015 seems entirely possible. And it’s hard to see the Democrats’ path to a majority in the House.

Much can happen between now and Election Day 2014. The economy is improving, and that will accrue to Obama’s and Democrats’ benefit. But with the tea party and conservative media now awakened, it‘s starting to look a lot like 2010.

What does that mean in deep-blue Maryland?

2002 was a GOP year nationally, as every Republican candidate carried some of George W. Bush’s post 9-11 sheen. Bob Ehrlich became the first Republican governor elected in 36 years (though Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s inept campaign was also a factor).

It was a big Democratic year in 2006. Martin O’Malley ousted Ehrlich, and Michael Steele’s highly-touted Senate campaign fizzled.

It was a Republican year four years later, but Maryland hardly noticed. O’Malley broadened his winning margin over Ehrlich in their rematch. Republicans lost two seats in the state Senate, though they gained a handful in the House and won some key local races.

With the 2014 gubernatorial election now under way — and Republicans are going to get their first official candidate next week, when Harford County Executive David Craig formally enters the fray — you’d be hard-pressed to find many Republicans who think they have a chance to compete at the statewide level.

But if it’s a Republican year nationally, it’ll be that much harder for the handful of vulnerable Democratic state senators and the eight or so vulnerable Democratic delegates to prevail. They all sit in conservative districts where Obama is pretty unpopular.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D) is strongly favored to win a second term. But a nationwide Republican wave makes his district worth watching, especially if Del. LeRoy Myers (R) decides to run and invest some of his own money in the race. Democrats’ dim chances of winning the county executive race in Anne Arundel fade even more if it‘s a GOP year. Republicans’ slim chances of winning the Howard County executive race improve. And so it goes, down the ballot.

How will we know if it’s going to be a Republican year? 2013 should provide at least a couple of early clues.

The first will come a month from now, in a special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts. Democrats are already having bad flashbacks to the last one that took place there, in early 2010, when Republican Scott Brown was elected to replace Ted Kennedy.

Massachusetts may be a more heavily Democratic state than Maryland. But some of the same ingredients are in place for another upset this time around.

The Republican nominee, Gabriel Gomez, a 40-something retired Navy SEAL and entrepreneur, is a political novice. The Democratic nominee, Rep. Ed Markey, is 66 years old and is in his 37th year in Congress. The first ad Markey ran in the general election touted a law he passed 20 years ago. And that’s a problem.

National Republicans are now sending staffers and resources to the Bay State, and why not? They’ve got nothing to lose. Polls have shown Markey with a single-digit lead of anywhere from 3 to 7 points. That’s nothing, considering how long he’s been on the scene. Independents favor Gomez by an almost 2-1 margin — that’s a big deal, and, many pundits believe, a poor reflection on Obama.

If Markey prevails, it may be because Tom Steyer, a billionaire climate activist, has decided to invest huge sums of money in the race. But that won’t instill a lot of confidence in the Democrats’ prospects for 2014.

The next big test will be in November, when Virginia voters go to the polls. It may be that the choice for governor there, between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, is the most unappealing I’ve seen in politics since the 1985 race for town supervisor in Eastchester, N.Y., featured candidates named Doody and Porco (you could look it up). A Cuccinelli win — a slightly better than 50-50 proposition at this point — would be more bad news for Democrats.

The 2014 national elections aren’t fully baked yet. But the temperature in the oven is rising, and Democrats are feeling the heat.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Back to the Future

Conviction Politics

Union Powerbroker Taking New Role

Why the Rush (Hour)?

House Cleaning

Reality Check (in Four Parts)