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State Democrats Play Defense Ahead Of Midterm Elections

By Don Gonyea | NPR
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Democrats are bracing for the 2014 election, now fewer than 10 weeks away.

What has them worried this year?

There's the president's slumping approval scores, the public view that the country is on the wrong track, and frustration that the economic recovery hasn't eased the nation's economic anxiety.

And then there's the usual weariness that settles in at this point in a two-term presidency.

Midterm voting six years into the administration of any president traditionally means big losses for the party in the White House. Much of the focus this year has been on the Republicans' opportunity to take control of the U.S. Senate. But Democrats are also concerned they'll lose ground outside Washington — in state legislatures, where the GOP is already dominant.

"By all rights, the Democrats are on defense in a midterm election when their guy's in the White House," says Tim Storey, who tracks elections for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

"So we know going into this election cycle that the Democrats are fighting against the wind, and the Republicans have the tailwind," Storey says.

One particularly hard-fought battle this year is in Kentucky, where Republicans hold the state Senate and are trying to win control of the state House.

As State Rep. Brent Yonts, a Democrat from Muhlenberg County, describes the election: "They're trying to grab the House, and we've got barricades, picket fences and booby traps and everything else trying to defeat that."

In Montana, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich expressed a confidence that extends beyond the boundaries of his red state.

"I think in 2014, we'll continue to see more state legislatures tilting to the Republican side. The pendulum swung too far under President Obama, and that pendulum is going to swing back in 2014," he said.

The big recent disaster for Democrats on the state level came in 2010 when Republicans, fueled by anger over the Affordable Care Act, picked up some 720 seats in state legislatures across the nation.

But Debbie Smith, a Nevada state senator and part of a very slim Democratic majority in that chamber, believes 2014 is different.

"While the Republicans do have some momentum and probably have more passion from their base, we don't see it as a 2010 type of year. But we do see it as a very competitive and contentious year, and we have to work hard getting out the vote," she says.

It's no surprise that a lot of Republicans in state legislative races are talking about President Obama. Democrats, meanwhile, try to keep the focus local. If they could once talk about being part of the Obama team, they don't anymore.

Mike Gronstal, the Democratic Senate Majority leader in battleground Iowa, has some advice for candidates on his side: Focus on what you can control.

"We'll be talking about campaigns, and people will be lamenting the top of the ticket, or lamenting the mood in their community," he says. "And I'll kind of go, so what part of that do we have control over? And people pause for a minute and go 'none.' OK, what are the pieces that we do have control over? Let's do those really well. And then whatever the outcome, we'll know we tried our very best."

On the plus side for Democrats is the fact that as unpopular as Obama is, Republicans in Congress fare far, far worse in polls.

That helps explain a growing sense that this year won't be one of those so-called "wave" elections, where huge numbers of seats change hands at every level. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse says 2014 so far seems to tilt toward the GOP, but no wave.

"Republicans are going to do well. But, for a wave election, you have to have independents strongly engaged," he says. "And right now we don't see independents really all that interested in this election. That may change."

Newhouse cautions, though, it's not even Labor Day yet. So the ball could still be in play.

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