Why the battle has begun for the 2014 U.S. midterm elections

While the big spending, the major fundraising and the countless ads are still in their political infancy, there is no doubt the 2014 U.S midterm election campaign has already begun.

Republicans and Democrats already vetting candidates for House and Senate

The Republican and Democratic parties are already vetting candidates for the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, but it's President Barack Obama who may be most keenly aware of how the results of the campaign could affect his overall legacy. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

While the big spending, the major fundraising and the countless ads are still in their political infancy, make no mistake, the 2014 U.S midterm election campaign is on.

"Committees get going the day after the [presidential] election day, looking for candidates and setting the foundation for the next election cycle," Republican strategist Whit Ayres told CBC News.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties are busy vetting candidates, figuring out who will run, who will retire and what districts are vulnerable in these high-stake races that could have a major impact on the direction of the country by deciding who ultimately controls the House and the Senate.

But it’s U.S. President Barack Obama who may be most keenly aware of how the results of the campaign could affect his overall legacy.

Immediately after his victory speech last November, Obama reportedly called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Steve Israel, Democratic congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and outlined his commitment to helping the Democrats take over the House.

"The president understands that to get anything done, he needs a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives," Israel recently told the Washington Post.

"To have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now."

The Republicans currently outnumber the Democrats in the House of Representatives by 232 to 200. But the Democrats lead in the Senate, 53 to 45, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Advantage Obama?

Winning the House and keeping the Senate would give Democrats control of all branches of government, allowing Obama to push ahead with his second-term agenda on issues including gun control, immigration reform and climate change.

Questions of border security figure heavily in ongoing U.S. discussions about immigration reform, one of the major issues on President Barack Obama's second-term agenda. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

And with the Republicans in disarray and undergoing something of an identity crisis following the 2012 presidential election, Obama would seem to have an advantage.

The Democrats can make use of the technology and voter lists that were developed during the presidential election.

And, of course, Obama "can raise money like nobody else because he's president," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told CBC News.

According to the New York Times, the president has already agreed to hold at least 14 fundraising events this year.

Criticized for being too withdrawn from the political process, Obama has also made personal overtures to the Republicans, having dinner with a number of senior members. Hailed by some on the right as a legitimate outreach, others have thought the move is more of a political calculation.

"He recognizes the political utility of reaching out to Republicans now in order to demonize them once again in the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections," wrote Stephen Hayes for the conservative Weekly Standard. "In short, it's a setup."

Falling ratings

Sabato said Obama's outreach fits in with his goals of wanting to craft a budget deal, but also with needing to keep up his approval ratings, which have dropped from the mid 50s and hover in the mid to high 40s.

"They've been falling, in part because people hold him responsible, along with Republicans, for the fact that nobody in Washington is getting along."

Despite Obama's efforts, many political observers believe the Republicans will continue to hold the House.

"They should," Sabato said. "[The Republicans] do so many dumb things that I suppose something ahistorical could happen. And that's what it would be, ahistorical."

The Democrats would have to pick up 17 seats while fighting history, and more importantly, redistricting.

In 2010, all the congressional districts were redrawn and reapportioned based on population in different states. Republicans are seen to have an advantage, based on how the districts have been redrawn, a situation reflected in the results of the 2012 presidential election. Although Mitt Romney lost the contest, he actually won more congressional districts than Obama.

"As a whole, the map actually leans to the right," Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told CBC News. "We see that our majority is on pretty solid ground."

Democrats are also facing a public that, after six years of governing by the same president, might be looking for something different.

"The sixth year of a president's term is generally not a good year for the president's party," said Ayres.

The Republicans, for example, got creamed during the 2006 midterm elections of President George W. Bush's second term, losing control of both the House and the Senate.

Demographics could play a role

The demographic makeup of the electorate also favours the Republicans, Ayres said.

For example, in the 2012 presidential election, 70 per cent of voters were white, but that percentage should climb by four to five points in the midterms.

"As a general rule, minorities tend to turn out in higher levels in presidential elections than non-presidential elections," Ayres said.

Redistricting will also protect incumbents from both parties, making it unlikely the House will flip, Ayres said.

Scarpinato suggested Obama has helped the Republican cause with his agenda.

"The president handed us a lot of help already because we believe the agenda he outlined in the inauguration, the state of the union, is really way to the left of where voters are. 

"Democrats, to win more seats, need to win in Republican districts in the south and rural areas and talking about cap and trade and assault weapons bans is not going to play well in those parts of the country they need to win in."

Unlikely but not impossible

As for the Senate, while considered relatively safe for the Democrats, Republicans believe they may be able to eke out a victory.

Sabato said while that's unlikely, it’s not impossible.

"There could be a wave, that's the only way Republicans win it. The fact that Democrats added two seats in '12 tells you a lot. They've got a buffer now.

"Is it possible? Of course. Maybe Obama's unpopular by then. You can imagine it. Everything will have to fall just right [for the Republicans], which happens in a wave, otherwise Democrats will retain control."

Ayres said much depends on the credibility of the candidates the Republicans run. Many political observers thought the GOP blew its chance to take over the Senate in 2012 by nominating candidates seen as too extreme.

One Democrat strategist said the Republicans tend to run national Senate campaigns, instead of localizing the issues, which may hurt their chances.

"At the end of the day, the main goal it is to hold the majority. You hold a majority by winning individual Senate races," Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told CBC News.

Depends on the year

But Ayres pointed out that the Republicans made huge gains in 2010 by making it a campaign about Obamacare and government overreach. In 2006, the Democrats were successful by nationalizing the midterms with a focus on George W. Bush’s policies, and in particular the war in Iraq.

"I think it depends on the year and the environment."

 If Obama wants to avoid becoming a lame-duck president in his final two years in office, he needs to ensure the Democrats retain the Senate.

"They have a pipe dream about winning the House, but there's always a chance," Sabato said. "But if he loses the Senate, too, his last two years are going to be miserable."