Are November’s Midterms All That Are Concerning Congress?

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If there is anything American politicians have pursued in 2014, it’s campaigning for November’s midterms. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for reelection, while 35 Senate seats will be contested. As the primary elections for November’s congressional midterms progress, political analysts are looking for clues as to whether voters will express their dissatisfaction with incumbent senators and representatives at the polls.

Early in the cycle — with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, easily defeating their Tea Party rivals — it seemed the party had started to set the stage for what the GOP hoped would be a landslide victory in the coming elections.

Republicans wants to avoid the missteps made in 2010 and 2012, when Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Todd Akin in Missouri lost winnable races with weak campaigns and other errors. Despite the American public’s widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, voters have largely picked Republican candidates who have a better chance of winning in November: this is, incumbents who uphold the views of the establishment wing of the party.

Eric Cantor, the former House Majority Leader and Virginia representative, is the notable exception. But even Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, a six-term senator who faced a difficult runoff race against Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, won. However, it is too simplistic to distill the election results into an argument for the imminent demise of the Tea Party.

Tight primary races are by no means exclusive to the Republican Party. Charlie Rangel, a 22-term Democratic representative of New York’s 13th congressional district, defeated his opponent by a margin of only 3 percentage points. Voters cast ballots in seven states this week, and in other Tuesday primaries, incumbent establishment Republicans captured wins, as well.

Two-term representative James Lankford won Oklahoma’s Republican primary with ease, capturing 57 percent of the vote in a three-way Senate election, which suggests he will prevail in November, as well. Meanwhile, in the state’s fifth congressional district, six GOP candidates were cut to two: state Sen. Steve Russell and Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas, who will face an August 26 runoff.

In a New York primary, Republican voters picked state Sen. Lee Zeldin, backed by the party, over self-funded Wall Street prosecutor George Demos, who was largely seen as a weak candidate to challenge the vulnerable Democrat incumbent in November. Elise Stefanik, a former aide to President George W. Bush and the preferred candidate of Washington Republicans, was victorious in another of New York’s Republican House of Representative primaries. New York Rep. Richard Hanna, a relative moderate, also won.

In Colorado, Ken Buck is now favored to replace incumbent Rep. Cory Gardner, while Rep. Doug Lamborn narrowly beat retired Air Force Gen. Bentley Rayburn. And in a special general election in Florida’s 19th district, businessman Curt Clawson beat Democrat April Freeman, winning 67 percent of the vote to 29 percent, respectively.

The cost of these victories was high. According to Politico’s review of Federal Election Commission data, political groups aligned with the establishment branch of the Republican Party have already spent $23 million so far this election cycle to support the campaigns of favored candidates. That figure only hints at the expense and scope of the attempt by establishment Republicans to ensure that Washington’s picks are victorious in the ongoing primaries and November’s congressional midterms.

Nearly a third of that $23 million was supplied by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Super PAC American Crossroads and the National Rifle Association were prolific spenders, as well. Senators like Kentucky’s McConnell, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, and John Cornyn of Texas collectively spent millions more from their own campaign accounts.

With public dissatisfaction of Congress at a record high, the party’s massive funneling of funds to the campaigns of establishment candidates and incumbents seems incongruous — it bears asking whether the establishment Republicans are spending too much. However, the argument can be made that the public is so apathetic that the electorate does not care who wins the midterms.

As a recent poll conducted by NBC News, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and The Wall Street Journal found, 50 percent of Americans say the improvement of the economy will be little impacted regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress. That statistic may seem seem surprising, given how partisan the American electorate has grown, but also given that 45 percent of respondents cited the economy as the most important midterm election issue, it is likely that voters increasingly see lawmakers as unable to speed up the recovery.

More significantly, the Pew Research Center found that 28 percent of Americans — more than one in four — have no idea which party controls the House of Representatives or the Senate. Gallup said after Cantor’s loss that the “political environment in which the 2014 elections are being contested promises to be difficult for congressional incumbents.” The research firm found that just 7 percent of Americans think congressional lawmakers are doing a “good job.”

But as establishment Republicans know, midterm elections — and especially primaries — typically suffer from low voter turnout. Not only do voters in midterm elections tend to be those most passionate about the issues, but those citizens who cast ballots are generally older, whiter, and more conservative. And so establishment Republicans must appeal to those voters.

But even with the high rates of congressional dissatisfaction and the establishment’s worry about the Tea Party, a number of those candidates will likely win. Once the primaries have decided the fate of establishment-backed Republicans, the question will be if Republicans can take control of the Senate in November.

Opinions of political analysts are divided. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast still favors the Republicans, while Real Clear Politics has given the Democrats a slight advantage. Regardless of how the political makeup changes in Congress come November, the changes will not likely boost public opinion.

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