Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — There is something deeply satisfying about the troubles punditry is having in nailing down exactly what’s happening in the 2014 elections.

The careful statistical models keep gyrating on the question of whether Republicans will win control of the Senate this November. The prognosticators who rely on their reporting and their guts as well as the numbers are sometimes at odds with the statisticians.

The obvious reason for the uncertainty is that many of the key Senate races are still very close in the polls. This should encourage a degree of humility among those of us who love to offer opinions about politics. Humility is a useful virtue not always on display in our business. The unsettled nature of the election also sends a salutary signal to the electorate. As Howard Dean might put it: You have the power. Voting will matter this year.

It is not my habit to agree with Karl Rove, but he was on to something in his Wall Street Journal column last Thursday when he wrote that “each passing day provides evidence as to why a GOP Senate majority is still in doubt.”

Rove’s focus, not surprisingly, was on money. Democrats have been spending heavily to hang on to their majority, and he interpreted this as an imperative for Republican candidates and donors to “step up if they are to substantially reduce that gap.” In a parenthetical sentence, he disclosed his interest here: “I help American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS raise funds on a volunteer basis.” Rove’s professional history is in the direct mail business, and his column was a nicely crafted fundraising plea.

Rove acknowledged that the big-dollar Republican groups have yet to commit all the cash they have raised, so the TV advertising gap “is likely to shrink.” But the GOP’s real problem in closing the deal is about more than money. Spending doesn’t work unless candidates and parties have a case to make, and this gets to why we have yet to see either a clear trend or a dominant theme emerge in this campaign. Many swing voters may be in a mood to punish or put a check on President Obama. Yet Democrats might still hang on if voters decide that life and government will be no better with a legislative branch entirely under GOP control.

Underlying the Democrats’ argument that a Republican-led Senate will be no day at the beach is the fact that their conservative opponents are offering little of practical help to voters still unsettled by the economic downturn, and might make things worse.

Thus, even in conservative states, Democrats are zeroing in on Republican opposition to government programs aimed at solving particular problems. Their arguments and ads reflect a reality: Voters who might dislike government in the abstract often support the concrete things government can do.

In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes launched a Web ad on Friday criticizing Senate Minority Mitch McConnell for leading a filibuster against Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill to bring down interest rates on student debt. “We want our students getting degrees, not debt,” Grimes says. Students are portrayed echoing the “degrees, not debt” theme.

In Arkansas, Democrat Mark Pryor has run advertising built around the Ebola outbreak, criticizing his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, for being one of 29 House Republicans to vote in 2013 against a reauthorization of public health and emergency programs. Cotton’s campaign insisted that he voted later in favor of a subsequent version of the spending bill, but it’s striking that a conservative would be put on the defensive about opposing a spending program.

And in North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan used a debate earlier this month to launch a populist attack on state House Speaker Thom Tillis, her Republican foe, charging him with believing that “those who have the most should get the most help.” She has also denounced Tillis for blocking North Carolina from taking advantage of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. She pointed to health care providers in the state who are “having unbelievable problems because of no Medicaid expansion.”

I’ll try to practice some of the humility I’m preaching by acknowledging that I have no idea whether Republicans will take the six seats they need to control the Senate. Maybe their incessant assaults on Obama will prove to be enough. But an election that once looked to be a Republican slam dunk has even Karl Rove worried because many voters seem to want do more with their ballots than just slap the president in the face.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

AFP Photo/Win McNamee

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!