President Obama’s diminished popularity and recurring questions about government competence have been a drag thus far on Democratic candidates, polls show.

Michael A. Memoli
July 4, 2014

Democrats headed into the Fourth of July recess facing stiff head winds in their quest to maintain a Senate majority this fall, contending with voters’ unease over the economy and a slew of Washington controversies.

But analysts say that a narrow path still exists for the party because of atypically strong enthusiasm levels among Democratic voters, while Republicans confront newly inflamed tensions with their base after a roller coaster series of primaries.

New data released last week by leading pollsters in both parties show how November’s midterm election could hinge on Democrats’ success in rallying key voting sectors, such as women.

The party’s Senate leaders have already tailored their legislative agenda with an eye to these groups, pushing proposals to raise the minimum wage and to ensure pay equity between men and women in the workplace. President Obama on June 26 traveled to Minnesota to spend what he called a “day in the life” with a 36-year-old mother of young children who had written to him about her family’s struggles.

But Obama’s diminished popularity and recurring questions about government competence, including the healthcare law rollout, IRS scandal and Department of Veterans Affairs appointment backlog, have been a more powerful drag thus far on Democratic candidates.

“It makes it far more difficult to stand with the president as a Democratic incumbent, and to carry this weight of an unpopular president,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The more these stories come out, the more difficult it is to carry that load through November.”

Democrats hold a 55 to 45 advantage in the Senate, including two independent lawmakers who usually vote with them. To win the majority, Republicans need to gain six seats out of the 36 races that will be contested this fall, a target many nonpartisan handicappers say is within reach.

Ayres conducted a survey in 12 states with the most competitive Senate races and found Obama’s job approval rating at 38%. When asked if they would prefer the Senate controlled by Democrats to help pass Obama’s agenda or Republicans to “act as a check and balance,” voters preferred the GOP 54% to 36%.

Matt Canter, deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged that Democrats are facing a difficult landscape but said the candidates are well positioned.

“Constituents in their states understand that their senator is putting their state’s interests ahead of Washington and even ahead of their own national party when they think that that’s right,” he said. “These races have truly become choices.”

But Ayres found one ray of hope for Democrats: the party’s voters reported equal levels of enthusiasm about the November vote as Republicans in these states. Typically in the midterm election of a president’s second term, the opposing party has a significant edge, as national polls now show.

“This is an unusual result,” Ayres said. “But I do think that’s a function of the attention that’s been lavished on these dozen states so far. There’s been a tremendous number of ads already, even where the Republican nominee has not been settled yet. So I think that’s what’s generating this parity in enthusiasm.”

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