We already know the loser of the election: Obama’s agenda

Brad Todd Founding Partner, OnMessage Inc.
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We don’t know yet who our next president will be, but we do know the loser of this Tuesday’s election already.

The loser is Barack Obama’s agenda.

Barack Obama, the man, may eke out re-election, but the policies he has pursued over the last four years could cause his party to lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Obama’s agenda has been so toxic that his signature pieces of legislation — the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the cap-and-trade regimen — have scarcely appeared in television ads for Democratic incumbents in tough races, unless they were bragging about their opposition to them.

Among four dozen target-seat Democrats, only Rep. David Cicilline has made his support for Obama’s policies a focal point of his campaign — and his race is in deep blue Rhode Island.

Democrat avoidance of Obama’s policies was the norm even in other blue states, as the core House battlefield included seven seats in California, five seats in Illinois, four others in New England and five districts in New York.

That’s evidence we are heading for a House election without coattails for Obama. Instead he might just get the rebuke of a net increase in Republican-held seats.

Democrats began the year with high hopes and hot spin they would reclaim a majority in the U.S. House. They boasted the Republican freshman class was full of right-wing, “accidental” congressmen swept into office on a Tea Party wave. They noted that 57 Republicans sat in districts Obama had carried in 2008 — more than twice the number of take-overs Democrats would need to get a majority.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised ample money — collecting $151 million to keep pace with the National Republican Congressional Committee. They juiced up their outside groups, generating $35 million in television ads alone from unions and union-backed groups.

But the Democratic House campaign ran into an impenetrable roadblock that money and spin could not fix: the unpopularity of Obama’s first-term policies.

The NRCC, the campaign arm of House Republicans, asked voters in the late summer in 18 toss-up districts about the impact of Obama’s policies. An average of 43% said they’d made the economy worse while only 31% said they’d made it better. In 43 districts where voters were asked if they supported or opposed the Affordable Care Act, they responded in the negative by an average margin of 50%-44%.

As the fall campaigns heated up, Republicans used President Obama and his policies as a foil in advertisements in even the bluest districts. The failed 2009 stimulus, or “Recovery Act,” as Democrats ironically call it, was consistently the single most attractive vulnerability in polls testing messages against Democrats. It became the weapon of choice for Republican attack ads all season long.

Rust Belt Democrats took a beating over cap and trade and the few remaining Sun Belt Democrats were lashed for voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, even if they opposed its original passage.

On the flip side, the long-planned Democratic campaign to hang Republicans with the Ryan budget and its alleged ending of “Medicare as we know it” largely fizzled. Despite the millions spent prosecuting their argument, Democrats lost their edge on Medicare, an issue on which they once held an insurmountable advantage.

Republicans stole a march on Democrats and ran their own ads on Medicare in August and September, using a two-pronged strategy conceived and tested by the NRCC in a spring 2012 special election in Nevada.

First, the NRCC urged every Republican candidate to run early ads featuring the candidate’s own parent and a promise to preserve Medicare for both today’s recipients and future generations. Then the NRCC urged GOP candidates to immediately follow up with tough contrasts linking Democrats to the $716 billion cut in Medicare spending embedded in the Obamacare law.

Republicans had enough confidence to spend a sizable chunk of air-time on Medicare in defiance of the old adage to keep the agenda on your own turf. Deep-dive research had informed GOP strategists that senior voters’ mistrust of Obama and angst about Democrats’ profligate spending in general had erased the GOP’s historical disadvantage on Medicare.

Now, in the post-Obama world, the Medicare issue is close to a fair fight — a reality that landed squarely in the blind spot of Democratic House strategists.

With just hours remaining in Campaign 2012, it’s certain that Republicans will retain their majority. The only uncertainty is the net number of seats that will change hands. Long-time House watchers like Stu Rothenberg and Reid Wilson both predict a three-seat gain for Democrats, with Charlie Cook projecting a Democratic gain of less than five. To get to that modest gain, Democrats will need to win the bulk of the outstanding toss-ups, leaving a solid chance that it will be Republicans instead who make gains.

The math is simple. Reapportionment, the decennial process of redistributing House seats among the states to account for population shifts, gave the Republicans a one-seat edge to start — and it might net the GOP three seats if they can pull off plausible upsets in new seats in Nevada and Arizona. Eleven more races are seemingly cooked and will change parties, eight seats moving from Democratic control to Republican control and three from the GOP to Democrats. That gives Republicans a gain of between six and eight seats before any toss-ups are settled.

Of those 35 or so toss-up districts, 12 are held today by Democrats and 23 are represented by Republicans. To net the gain of three seats the experts predict, Democrats will need to retain all of their own shaky seats and elect two-thirds of their viable challengers.

After lofty pronouncements from Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s team as late as this fall that House control was “in play” — it appears every likely scenario on election eve will be considered a loss for House Democrats.

Here’s an election-night cheat sheet to the common clusters within the 35 toss-up districts that will determine the kind of message voters send about the Obama agenda, separate from their decision on the chief operating officer of the executive branch.

California (7)

Three Republican veterans, Reps. Dan Lungren, Brian Bilbray and Mary Bono-Mack, and one GOP freshman, Rep. Jeff Denham, are trying to thwart challenges while two Democratic incumbents, East Bay Rep. Jerry McNerney and Central Coast veteran Rep. Lois Capps, have the toughest re-election tests of their careers. A Ventura County open seat currently in Republican hands rounds out the list of California toss-ups.

Only one incumbent California congressman lost throughout the entire last decade — expect more than one to go down Tuesday.

Illinois (5)

Each party is defending a competitive open seat in Southern Illinois — Republicans expect to win both contests. GOP freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling is in one of the nation’s most expensive House races on the state’s western border and polls show a statistical dead heat with Democrat Cheri Bustos. Two Republican-held seats remain toss-ups in the Chicago suburbs — most media analysts expect Democrats to take one if not both. Democrats drew the Illinois map and they need all five toss-up seats to have a good night.

Rust Belt Freshmen (6)

Unions have spent a disproportionate share of resources on seats held by freshmen in the Rust Belt. Ohio’s Jim Renacci, for the second cycle in a row, has had more union dollars spent against him than any other Republican. His race against fellow incumbent Betty Sutton in a swing district in Northeast Ohio, along with Republican Rep. Bill Johnson’s against his predecessor, former Rep. Charlie Wilson, in the Ohio Valley, will give a clue about the presidential outcome in that state.

Both parties have a female freshman in a tough race in New York — Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul against Chris Collins and Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle against the man she beat in 2010, former Rep. Dan Maffei. If Republicans win both seats, they should net a seat overall in New York — a delegation once viewed as a potential trove of five gains for Democrats.

Two other Republican freshmen, Rep. Chip Cravaack of Minnesota and Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan, will try to hold districts on the shores of Lake Superior long held by Democrats before 2010.

Blue Dogs (4)

Republicans won most of the red districts on the map in 2010, including many held by iconic members of the Democratic caucus for decades. They will pick up a handful more from retirements by Blue Dogs who somehow survived 2010. The few remaining moderate Democrats who did choose to seek re-election are endangered. If Republicans are able to beat Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler, North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre and Georgia Rep. John Barrow, it’ll be hard for Democrats to gain seats at all.

Brad Todd is a Republican strategist and ad-maker who works extensively with House Republicans.