I was asked recently what I thought was going happen in the 2014 elections. The question was posed in terms of the nation as a whole rather than just Connecticut. It seems like good question to try to answer, particularly with respect to how national trends will affect us.
In some ways Connecticut can be an island that is not buffeted by even powerful national currents. For example, in 2006 the Democratic wave was strong nationally, yet it wasn’t enough to knock out a Republican Congressman in the 4th, and it almost wasn’t enough to carry a Democrat in the 2nd. We also re-elected a Republican governor easily. In 2010, Democrats were being crushed nationally, yet not a single Democratic U.S. House member in Connecticut came close to losing his or her seat and the Democrats even picked up a governorship here. Still, it is important to get an overall sense of the national landscape to understand Connecticut races.
Only two Connecticut races are likely to be competitive. We are looking at a high-profile governor’s race with the incumbent Democrat Dannel P. Malloy likely facing Tom Foley. (I stand by my earlier prediction that Foley will win the nomination, although Republican contenders John McKinney and Mark Boughton, have been feistier of late.) There is also a potentially interesting race in the 5th, with Elizabeth Esty seeking re-election after a narrow victory in 2012. Those are clearly the two marquee races going into 2014. In the end, the governor’s race will be far more exciting.
Some Republicans talk about running hard against Rep. Jim Himes in the 4th, but the incumbent Democrat has proven himself quite popular, even winning the often Republican town of Greenwich in the last election. The other three incumbent Democrats won’t have serious challengers. The state legislative districts are drawn in such a way that little exciting is likely to happen in the state House or Senate. Although a few seats could change hands, control of the chambers doesn’t seem to be in doubt.
This is our coming docket, which brings us to the overall national election. At this early stage, we are in one of the most difficult-to-predict mid-term elections in a long time. With a little over 14 months until the nation goes to the polls in federal elections, there is a state of confusion about the outcome. Mid-term elections often are decided by who in the country is angriest and therefore most motivated. As a general rule having your party out of power is likely to make you more upset. This year, however, who is out of power is an open question.
Republicans don’t have the White House or the Senate, but they control the House of Representatives and that gives them enough power to play a blocking role on lots of legislation. Democrats may have the presidency and one legislative chamber, yet they can’t get much of their agenda enacted. In some ways both sides are in power, which makes it is hard to punish those in power. Polling numbers don’t clarify who voters are most mad at, either, only that they’re mad. Congress as a whole has around a 15 percent job approval. Congressional Republicans are at about 25 percent approval, versus two-thirds disapproval. Democrats in Congress aren’t doing much better with 30 percent approving versus 60 percent disapproving. The President is in the mid-40s with half disapproving.
These numbers point to problems for both parties. The Democratic base is clearly unhappy. The NSA revelations are under-cutting the President’s support with young people. That can hurt Democrats. The failure to get a lot done will work to demoralize Democrats, too. The Republicans aren’t in any better shape. They made lots of promises to their base and sold Obama as a sinister force. The President’s decisive re-election and Republicans’ inability to actually stop parts of his agenda — the evil Obamacare for starters — has led to frustration on the Republican side. This, in turn, has provoked all sorts of odd responses, from primary challenges to Republican incumbents, to threats to shutdown the government, and to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. The party is in a certain amount of disarray. The response to these problems, or perhaps other factors, has been apathy. A good example is the difference between turnout in the U.S. Senate special elections held in Massachusetts in 2010 and 2013. Disagreement over Obama’s policies generated a lot of interest and pushed lots of people to the polls in the 2010 special. That didn’t happen in 2013. Just a tiny bit over half as many people voted in 2013 as voted in 2010. Democrat Ed Markey won easily.
Disengagement is the emerging overall trend. As both sides exhibit a decline in excitement, it is difficult to predict which side will decline more. In Connecticut, I would think this trend would be more of a problem for Democrats. Connecticut Democrats rely on voters who, on average, are less likely to vote, which is why even some blue cities have Republican leadership at the municipal level. Democrats need excitement to motivate their base. Republicans in Connecticut vote more reliably. The lack of national excitement, or even a big national marquee race, is a problem for state Democrats.
Nationally, it is less clear. Republicans have a bigger group of voters who require motivation nationally than they do in Connecticut, where a lot of Republicans vote their wallets. In that way, the national mood won’t matter much to state races. But there’s a key caveat. In 2010, voters who disapproved of everyone and everything voted overwhelmingly Republican. The dislike-everyone-vote is probably crucial to Foley, who has to depend on a smaller percentage of base Republicans in the state than there are nationally. And yet it’s not clear how the disaffected will vote in 2014, or if they will vote at all. That means it’s impossible to tell which way the winds will blow and how those gusts will shape Connecticut races.
Jason Paul of West Hartford is a partner in a campaign consulting company called What’s Next. He is also a student at the University of Connecticut Law School.