Only four years removed from enjoying majorities in both chambers of Congress and less than two years after re-electing Barack Obama, Democrats are facing a daunting political landscape that threatens their majority in the Senate and could render their lame-duck president even more ineffective than he is now.
According to a Real Clear Politics survey, 61% of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. A Gallup Poll earlier this month showed the president’s approval rating at a discouraging 45%. Both of those numbers give even the most ardent Democratic loyalists reason to question their election hopes this fall. Faced with this less-than-appealing scenario, Democrats have resorted to a number of measures to rally the base –- a playbook that might look very familiar to Republicans who went through a similar set of problems in 2006.
While a Republican landslide is by no means a certainty, the parallels between 2006, when the GOP lost 30 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate, and 2014 when Democrats appear in danger of a similar fate, are striking and hold lessons for both parties.
In 2006, the country was mired in a bloody and uncertain campaign in Iraq. A Gallup Poll from November 2006 showed that 55% of Americans felt that the decision to invade was a bad decision, while more than 70% of Americans held an unfavorable view of the country itself. Faced with these headwinds, combined with lingering damage from the controversy surrounding Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush watched his approval rating take a beating; as of Election Day 2006, only 38% of voters viewed him favorably, with 56% disapproving of his performance.
In a campaign post-mortem, respected journalist Dan Balz summed it up for The Washington Post, “Most polls, however, showed the public far more focused on Iraq than on terrorism and until the very end expressed greater confidence in Democrats to deal with Iraq.”
This year, Democrats are faced with a similarly overarching issue: The Affordable Care Act. “Obamacare,” as it is frequently called, has become the overwhelming issue in this election year, in the same manner that Iraq was in 2006. Despite recent milestones, such as reaching more than seven million enrollees, there is little to suggest that public opinion will change in enough time to save Democrats. The disastrous rollout of the program, coupled with thousands of Americans losing their existing insurance plan, is a potent weapon that Republicans and their allies won’t hesitate to use. Eventually, the Affordable Care Act may prove effective, but that will offer little comfort to vulnerable incumbents like Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who has already seen his vote for the program translated into millions of dollars in ads against him.
The striking similarities between 2006 and 2014 really come to light when analyzing the response of the majority party to great political challenges. In 2006, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist moved a number of measures in an effort to rally the base that had won the White House only two years earlier. From Terry Schiavo, the controversial case about whether to remove life support for the Florida woman, and threatening the “nuclear option” on judicial nominees, coupled with attacks on Democratic money men like George Soros, Republican majorities in both chambers were looking for a signature issue that could switch the national conversation off of the ongoing morass in Iraq.
Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, coordinating closely at times with the Obama administration, has pushed a host of measures to try and ignite his base out of their malaise. Raising the minimum wage, immigration reform and actually enacting the “nuclear option” on how judicial nominees were confirmed in the Senate all seems to be a near replay of how the Republican majority conducted business on its way out the door. Naturally, Democratic strategists have sworn up and down that all is well, dutifully enacting the role of Kevin Bacon at the end of “Animal House." Yet the over-the-top reaction of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to Nate Silver’s prediction of a Republican takeover in the Senate indicates their growing unease.
Despite the seeming good news for Republicans, some experienced operatives are cautious. Phil Musser, who served as executive director of the Republican Governor’s Association during the 2006 cycle, echoed those sentiments, "Climate-wise, there are some interesting parallels between 2006 and 2014. What remains to be seen is how the climate morphs or changes by the fall. In 2006, it got markedly worse in mid-October, with the president refusing to change out Rumsfeld at [the Department of] Defense and Mark Foley's intern scandal guaranteed that a bad year would get worse. The field of play looks similar, but you can't predict the nature of the late surprises, and we have a way to go."
Regardless of how this year’s elections turn out, there remains a striking parallel between the 2006 midterms and the fundamentals of this year’s race. Beyond the fact that both were held in the sixth year of a president’s term, what is remarkable about each is the similarity of “tried and true” tactics employed by the leadership of each party to try and right a listing ship. To be sure, the Obama administration has pulled itself out of a fire before, but it always had the seemingly bulletproof popularity of the president to lean on in those times. With his signature legislation now struggling and new problems like a stirring Russia on the horizon, Democrats face a monumental task in the months ahead, while Republicans count down the months and await another chance at running both chambers on Capitol Hill.
Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and currently serves as a communications consultant to a range of corporate and political clients. On Twitter @joebrettell
Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.