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Mid-term Congressional election thoughts

As the summer of 2014 rapidly comes to a close, this fall's mid-term Congressional elections have started to become a topic of conversation for political observers. Control of both houses of Congress will be at stake Nov. 4.

Earlier this summer a Gallup poll showed that the public's approval of Congress had fallen to an all-time low. Only 7 percent of Americans said in that poll that they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress. The previous low for Congress was 10 percent in 2013 - probably about the same approval rating as the one for the Hollywood Kardashians.

This is the first time that a Gallup poll has ever measured confidence in a major U.S. institution as being in single digits. (Comparatively, confidence in TV news is 18 percent, newspapers 22 percent, health care 23 percent, small business 62 percent, and the military 74 percent).

About a year ago - before his "Tonight Show" went off the air - Jay Leno said during one of his opening monologues: "Congress approval rating has dropped to 10 percent. The other 90 percent are withholding judgment until Congress actually does something."

Against this backdrop the mid-term elections will be held Nov. 4.

Republicans and Democrats both agree that the Republicans will retain control of the House where they have a 234-201 margin today. The Democrats would have to pick up 17 seats to put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker's chair. That won't happen. In fact, projections are that the Republicans will pick up about a dozen seats. If so, that would result in the biggest Republican House majority since the Hoover administration.

It has been almost universally true over the years that the party that holds the White House will lose Congressional seats in the mid-term elections of a president's sixth year in office. This was true for Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Ike, LBJ and Ronald Reagan in 1986 even though, in Reagan's case, he had a 63 percent approval rating at the time of the '86 mid-term elections. Plus, he had been re-elected two years earlier by the overwhelming margin of 525 electoral votes to just 13 for his opponent, Walter Mondale.

In Reagan's sixth year - 1986 - the Republicans lost seven Senate seats, including the ones in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and North and South Dakota - all states that Reagan had won by large margins twice. This same fate of losing Congressional seats in his sixth year in the White House will almost surely happen to President Obama this November.

In the Senate the Democrats presently have a 55-45 margin. The Republicans would need a net gain of six seats to get control and set the agenda in the Senate for the next two years. The Democrats, on the other hand, would need to hold Republican gains to no more than five seats to retain control of the Senate.

Either could happen. Plus, we may not actually find out who will control the Senate until Dec. 6. I'll explain why this is quite possible later in this article.

But the starting margin isn't really 55-45. It is 52-48 because both Republican and Democratic party leaders concede that the Republicans have an excellent chance to gain three seats that Democrats now hold in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. (Romney beat Obama by 14 percent, 18 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in those three states).

So the real race comes down to the following states: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina. Of these, Romney won Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina.

In addition, the six Senate seats regarded as being the "most vulnerable" this year are presently all held by Democrats. Obama's job approval rating - and Obamacare approval rating - are both significantly below 50 percent in each of these six "most vulnerable" states. In fact, Obama's overall personal approval rating, according to a recent Gallup poll, is just 41 percent - near his all-time low of 38 percent.

Political reporter Ron Brownstein has said that "for all the focus on fundraising, advertising spending and grassroots campaign organizations ... no single factor may shape this year's battle for control of the Senate more than attitudes toward President Obama."

That may well be true. Further, if a mid-term election is ever a referendum on anything other than the president, it is on the economy or, more accurately, the public's perception of the economy. All of these are reasons why the Republicans are optimistic.

But, hold on. While it is certainly possible that the Republicans will win the six or more seats necessary to get control of the Senate, it is also possible that the Democrats will hold the Republicans to a net gain of just five seats, thus ensuring - with Vice President Biden's tie-breaking vote - that the Democrats will continue to control the Senate and keep Harry Reid in the Senate Majority Leader's office.

However, it is also very likely that we really won't know the outcome of the fight for control of the Senate until the night of Dec. 6, when the votes are finally counted in a likely Louisiana Senate run-off that may include a surprising endorsement for the Democratic incumbent by a normally Republican-leaning organization.

Rather than review all of the states in play, I have selected three key races that likely will determine which party will control the Senate for the next two years. They are as follows:

Kentucky: This is a state where the incumbent Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, is running for his sixth term at age 72. Mitt Romney won Kentucky by 23 percent while carrying 116 of Kentucky's 120 counties. And Kentucky tends to vote heavily Republican in federal races.

Obama is very unpopular in Kentucky - among white voters especially - with an approval rating of just 29 percent earlier in the year. And Obamacare is similarly unpopular in the state. You would think that with all of these facts this would practically be a gimme for McConnell. But it isn't. It's a real "horse race," which is an apt term for Kentucky. Millions of out-of-state money is pouring into Kentucky and it could well become the first $100 million U.S. Senate race ever.

Here's why it is a horse race. McConnell's approval rating in Kentucky after 30 years in the Senate is only in the upper 30s - not much higher than Obama's in the state. And his own campaign team acknowledges that his vote ceiling is just a little bit better than 51 percent. His Democratic opponent, 35-year-old Allison Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, has proven to be an excellent fundraiser and an aggressive campaigner. Plus, she has occasionally been campaigning in Kentucky with Bill Clinton, not President Obama.

Why? Because Obama is toxic in Kentucky and is not only disliked in that state by Republicans but by many Democrats as well. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, actually won Republican Kentucky in both of his '92 and '96 presidential races (although without Ross Perot on the ballot Clinton would not have won in either of those years).

So while Grimes is trying to distance herself from Obama she thinks that Clinton can help rally her base. Hillary Clinton will also be in the state for at least one campaign appearance on Grimes' behalf this fall. The Democratic challenger has even begun calling herself a "Clinton Democrat" in campaign literature.

That's why it is a horse race with McConnell's lead being in low single digits in recent polls.

The polls close in Kentucky at 5 p.m. Minnesota time on Election Day, so if there is to be an upset in Kentucky, you should know about it early. And if that occurs, then it would be very unlikely that the Republicans could get over the 50-seat hurdle for control of the Senate.

Having said all of this, give a slight edge to Republican Sen. McConnell to be narrowly re-elected to a sixth term.

Iowa: This is an open seat that has been held by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin for 30 years. Polls show the race dead even. The Democratic challenger is a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives while the Republican challenger, a female, is a member of the Iowa Senate, a farmer and a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard.

Iowa is one of only two states that has never elected a female to the governor's office, the House or the Senate. Mississippi is the other.

Although Iowa voted for President Obama in '08 and '12, this could work in the Republican candidate's favor. So, too, could the fact that popular Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad is running for re-election at the top of the ticket and, if elected, would become the longest serving governor in the history of the United States.

I think these two facts will help the Republican candidate win a narrow victory.

So after the votes are finally counted in all of the Senate contests Nov. 4, where will the race for control of the Senate be? It is possible that the Republicans will have 50 seats and the Democrats will have 49, with one state to be determined - Louisiana. And that is when the fun will begin - with control of the Senate likely at stake.

Louisiana: This could well be the race of the night But, most improbably we may not know the winner until Dec. 6.

Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Democratic senator, has been elected three times but never with more that 52 percent of the vote. In fact, she was forced into run-offs twice. She is also the last remaining Democrat elected to a statewide office in Louisiana.

She is running primarily against U.S. Congressman Bill Cassidy, who is serving his second term in the House. But, there are two other Republican candidates on the ballot as well.

Louisianans call their election day a "jungle primary" because anyone who has qualified to be on the ballot is on the ballot. There are no early primaries to sort out the field. On Election Day, if none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, then the top two vote-getters - regardless of affiliation - will have a run-off Dec. 6 to decide who will be Louisiana's senator beginning in 2015.

At present it is difficult to see how any of the Senate candidates on the ballot can get to 50 percent on Election Day, so the Dec. 6 run-off is all but certain.

Now this is where it gets interesting. If the run-off does, in fact, occur, and if control of the Senate is, indeed, on the line, then you can count on the following: tens of millions of dollars flooding into the state between Nov. 4 and the run-off election day Dec. 6, just about every political consultant east of the Rocky Mountains from both parties taking up temporary residence in the state, hundreds of media types reporting on every miniscule move in the polls, surrogate after surrogate crisscrossing the state on behalf of their candidate and representatives of both national parties encamped on the doorstep of almost every voter in the state.

But this will not include President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Louisiana. In 2012, he lost the state to Romney by 17 percent. How he will try to help Landrieu will be interesting to see. Perhaps by being quiet and doing nothing. That would be a stunning decision by a sitting president regarding a U.S. Senate incumbent of his own party, and especially with control of the Senate possibly in the balance. But it's perhaps the best choice that is available to him.

Louisiana has a rich political history of all sorts of skullduggery, such as bribery, fraud, extortion, buying votes, selling votes, dead people voting, live people voting who may not even live in the state, unusual voting records, missing ballot boxes, newly found ballot boxes and occasionally just plain racketeering.

Whew! But that's Louisiana. The great southern writer, Walker Percy, used to say that as far as politics was concerned in Louisiana, "the political parties cheat with the abandonment of Catholics but with the efficiency of Protestants."

Who will win? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said very quietly that if there is a run-off they will, surprisingly, endorse the Democratic Senate incumbent Mary Landrieu for a fourth term, even though a victory by her could easily be the deciding vote that will allow the Democrats to continue to control the Senate.

With that kind of boost, and despite the distrust and dislike for both President Obama and Obamacare throughout the state, Landrieu could squeak by with a win - again in a run-off and once more with less than 52 percent of the vote.

When the votes have finally been counted and all of the money has been totaled for this year's Congressional races, I think we will find that record amounts of dollars have been spent in an off-year election. And not just by the winners.

Which brings to mind a quote from Will Rogers: "Politics has got so expensive that it takes lots of money to even get beat nowadays."

Isn't that the truth!

Bob Goodwin has worked for four U.S. presidents and has been involved in seven

presidential campaigns. He and his wife, Sydney, have been summer residents of the Gull Lake area for 30 years.