Labor Day used to mark the beginning of the fall campaign. (I’m old enough to remember when that was true.) Now, with campaigns a year or more old by September, Labor Day is when we measure where things stand and make predictions about what will happen in the next 60 days.
The strong consensus this Labor Day is that Republicans will hold the House — the 2010 Census practically ensures that — and narrowly take control of the Senate, for the following reasons.
First, there are more Democratic seats than Republican ones in play, and the fights over them will take place mainly on Republican turf, states that Mitt Romney either carried by a comfortable margin or lost by a narrow one. Next, Republican candidates in those states are stronger, as a group, than their predecessors have been. This time the primaries culled out the unelectable nominees — there is no Christine O’Donnell (“I am not a witch”) or Todd Aiken (“Legitimate rape doesn’t cause pregnancy”) to give away a seat even before the race begins.
The election is shaping up just as Republicans want it to, as a referendum on Obama’s performance rather than a selection of party preference. The president’s job ratings are 41 percent approval, 52 percent disapproval, rankings similar to George W. Bush’s at this point in his second term. Obama has become enough of a political liability that several Democratic candidates in tight races have declined to appear on the same stage with him when he visited their states.
Republicans who thought that Obamacare would be the deciding factor in the election acknowledge that its importance is fading because the economy has replaced it as the primary issue on people’s minds. But that also plays into Republican hands. People tend to vote against the party in power when economic times are bad. By a 49 percent to 42 percent margin, poll respondents say the Republicans will do a better job handling the economy than the Democrats.
Obama is trying to blunt that by touting figures showing the economy has turned around and is doing fine, particularly when compared to “the mess we inherited.” That is not playing well. People believe what they see around them, not abstract figures they hear in a political speech. Roughly half the population thinks we are still in a recession and two-thirds say the country is on the wrong track. Enough years have passed that the claim it’s Bush’s fault doesn’t cut it anymore.
This all adds up to a fairly good Republican lead at this point. Nate Silver, the analyst who called the 2012 result correctly, puts their chance of regaining the Senate at 64 percent. However, there are still two months to go, and plenty of things could happen to change the picture.
Obama could refurbish his image with a significant foreign policy breakthrough, something that always rallies the country around its president. Local issues could intrude on national trends and change the dynamic in certain races. Something could happen to shift the focus of the election away from Obama and onto the behavior of congressional Republicans, whose ratings are lower than his. There are enough Democrats in close races — Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina, primarily — who need only a slight change in momentum to keep their seats. Democrats could still hold the Senate.
Republican senatorial candidates celebrated the Labor Day holiday with the feel of the wind at their back for the first time in years. We’ll see whether they can celebrate the next one — Veterans Day — with a real victory rather than just a prospective one.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.