Karl Rove, called “the Architect” by President George W. Bush, is predicting a Republican sweep in the midterm election. Though an effective manager of George Bush’s presidential campaigns, Republicans should again be cautious of Rove’s powers of prediction.
In 2006, Rove organized G.W. Bush’s midterm election strategy, which led to one of the Republican Party’s historic defeats – losing 30 seats in the House and the hard-won control they seized in 1994. At the time, Rove repeatedly claimed the election would be a contest between Democratic and Republican candidates and not a referendum on Bush.
He may have over-learned that lesson. He now claims, along with many other pundits, that this election will be a referendum on President Obama, and the outcome of a GOP sweep is nearly inevitable. However, this time around there are a series of reasons the Democrats may be able to turn at least some of the contests into an election about the candidates, thereby holding their losses down to a low of 20 or so House seats and four to five Senate seats. Some factors that distinguish this year’s election and which help the Democrats:
• In 2006, Democrats recruited moderates and conservatives to fit the swing districts and states they were targeting. This year, a revolt in the Republican Party against the establishment is handing the GOP nomination in many races to fringe candidates who are much more conservative than those the districts and states usually nominate or elect.
In addition, Democrats are not shy in distancing themselves from Obama and his national agenda when necessary. Colorado Democrats have rejected his call for more stimulus, and none of the embattled candidates are proposing any more presidential visits.
The situation in Colorado highlights the Republican challenge this year. Its senate candidate, Ken Buck, won after a bitter primary. And, although he may not be much more conservative than the woman he beat, the primary campaign moved him even further to the right and established his Tea Party identity. Democrats have launched the “He’s too extreme for Colorado” campaign as their main message.
• Polls show that both parties are disliked – but, Republicans even more so than Democrats. The Republicans’ only advantage is being in the minority, and their ability to tap into the prevailing sentiment that Obama and the Democrats in Congress have overplayed their hand. In 2006, because Democrats were not as recently tossed out of power, it was easier for them to run without much of a platform and for voters to imagine a change from GOP governance.
• Obama will campaign to both stir his base and help frame the issues. Although he won’t be useful in some states, he is much better at it than George W. Bush, and much less disliked at this point in his presidency (although he may be headed to Bush’s low approval rating in the mid-30% range).
• There is an entire new standard of campaign, created by the Obama bid in 2008. The Obama campaign outspent John McCain by more than 2-to-1; it pulled in early votes, thereby locking up the race in many states before McCain made a late surge; and it micro-targeted its message to persuade voters and send instructions to core supporters. In addition, new interactive media and targeted message delivery were utilized in new and more ingenious ways.
If these same campaign techniques are employed during the next 60 days, the Democrats could hold their losses to a minimum and Karl Rove can give up prognosticating.