For Democrats, It’s All About (Years) After November

by Stuart Rothenberg February 5, 2014 · 3:57 PM EST

Politics is often about keeping one eye on today and another eye on tomorrow. That’s especially true for Democrats, who should not be completely disheartened about their party’s prospects.

November certainly looks like a challenging election for supporters of President Barack Obama — given the president’s anemic job approval numbers, recent generic ballot tests showing a virtual dead heat in congressional vote intention, the public’s deep dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., and turnout trends in midterm years.

But Democrats should remember that the 2016 election cycle begins Wednesday, Nov. 5, the day after voters go to the polls to cast their votes in the midterms. And 2016 already looks like a much better cycle than 2014 for Democratic partisans.

The presidential election will bring out more voters, in all likelihood to the benefit of the eventual Democratic nominee. And the early signs point to another bitter primary season for the GOP, as anti-establishment groups, libertarians, social conservatives and pragmatic conservatives battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and for its presidential nomination.

Democrats could, of course, have their own lively contest for their presidential nomination, and the increasingly vocal progressive wing could create divisions that the party has been able to avoid recently. But the Democratic Party simply does not have the deep fractures now apparent in the GOP, and because of that, its presidential nomination process is less likely to result in rancor, division, bitterness — and a nominee who had to prove his or her ideological credentials in order to win the nomination.

Only a fool would insist that the Democratic “lock” on the Electoral College is now so strong that Republicans have little or no chance of electing the nation’s next president in 2016. We don’t know what the economy will look like in the fall of 2016, or how the public will evaluate the concluding Obama presidency.

Still, at this point, at least the fundamentals will favor the Democrats in the 2016 race for the White House.

While presidential year turnout patterns could also help Democrats in the fight for the House next cycle, regaining the chamber won’t be easy for Obama’s party in 2016. That will be especially true if Republicans gain even a handful of additional seats this year, which is not out of the question.

For both Democratic strategists and rank-and-file activists, the real reason for Democratic optimism in 2016 rests in the Senate.

Simply put, the party has a chance to make huge Senate gains that year.

This cycle, Democrats are defending 20 seats (plus an additional seat up because of a special election), while Republicans defend only 13 (plus two more having special elections).

Of those 15 Republican Senate seats up in November, only one is in a state Obama carried in 2012 — Maine. And the Republican senator seeking re-election there, Susan Collins, doesn’t face a top-tier Democratic challenger in the fall.

On the other hand, seven of the 21 Democratic Senate seats up in November were carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, giving GOP strategists a handful of ready opportunities in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Next cycle, the roles are reversed. There will be 24 Republican Senate seats up in 2016 and only 10 Democratic seats, a result of the Republican political wave of 2010, which helped the GOP win back control of the House.

Just as important, not a single Democratic seat up next cycle is in a state that was carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. In fact, only two of the states, Colorado and Nevada, could even be characterized as competitive.

By contrast, seven Republican senators up in 2016 sit in states Obama carried in 2012 — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and an eighth sits in a state Obama carried in 2008, but narrowly lost in 2012 (North Carolina).

It’s too soon to know if Democrats can win any or all of those states, and with the notable exception of Illinois, they are competitive states, not reliable Democratic bastions. That makes them different from the current cycle, when many of the Democratic Senate seats up are in substantially red states.

The results of the Senate class of 2016 will be particularly important for both parties because the class of 2018 is so unbalanced, featuring 25 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats) and only eight Republicans.

As many as 10 Democratic seats could be at risk in those midterm elections. If a Democrat wins the White House in 2016, 2018 would constitute the third straight midterm with a Democratic president.

All of that is a long way off. But while you have one eye on 2014, have the other looking at both 2016 and 2018. Wild swings are possible.