Political expert: In 2014, 'thumb on the scale' favors GOP

Charlie Cook, one of the nation’s most respected political commentators, told an Elon University audience Wednesday that historical and demographic trends favor a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate this fall - but the GOP shouldn’t be too giddy as 2016 looks to be a blessing for Democrats.

Throughout much of the past half century, the party of the sitting American president loses seats in Congress during midterm election cycles, often as voter “punishment” for the policies or actions of the commander in chief. It can be especially rough for that party when presidential approval is lower than disapproval in public opinion surveys.

Combined with the type of electorate that turns out in midterm elections – older, whiter, more conservative – and the 2014 fall campaign season appears to be quite promising for the Republican Party, according to one of the nation’s top political prognosticators, who spoke at Elon University on Sept. 3, 2014.

Charlie Cook, founder of The Cook Political Report and a frequent analyst for national television news programs, offered insights and wisdom about American politics in a Whitley Auditorium event that took place the same night as the first televised debate between two candidates vying this November to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate.

“You have what is a classic photo-finish state,” Cook said. “I’d argue that this is the closest Senate race in the country and the one that is going to be most sensitive to where the country is right now.”

Cook spent much of his time on stage addressing two countervailing narratives that are shaping the fall campaign. Republicans, he said, are still struggling with the same forces that vexed them in 2012, including problems attracting voters of color, women, younger voters and moderates.

The GOP also continues to harm itself by nominating candidates so far to the right, or with such unusual personality quirks, that they alienate voters who might otherwise hold conservative views. “My wife is trying to get me to stop using the term ‘whacko,’” he said, “so I’m going with ‘exotic and potentially troubling candidates.’”

Why aren’t Democrats in a better position to capitalize on Republican woes? They have their own problems, Cook said, including an embattled President Barack Obama, lingering angst over the health care reform law known as “Obamacare,” and an improving economy that is helping those at the top while leaving wages flat for middle class and blue collar families.

Assuming the GOP can retain the seats it already holds, and given that Republicans will win the open seats where Democratic or independent incumbents chose to retire, it only needs to pick up three additional contested races to take control of the U.S. Senate and make Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – should he win his own re-election campaign – the new majority leader.

But don’t “pop the cork” just yet, Cook cautioned Republicans. In 2016, where the electorate will be more diverse, younger, and more moderate because of the presidential election, Democrats considered “safe” in the Senate will outnumber Republicans running for re-election in contested districts. Control of the chamber may easily shift back to Democrats.

It’s also a mistake to think much will change in the way the Senate operates, Cook said. Its dysfunction looks to be a long-term problem for both structural and political reasons. Legislation will continue to stall on many of the most important issues facing the country. The “easy” problems, he said, have already been addressed.

“The thing about Congress is this,” he said. “It is always easier to stop something than it is to get something done.”

Cook opened the evening with praise for Elon University. The father of a current Elon senior, Cook’s relationship with the university dates to his first visit in 2003. Since then, he has forged relationships with faculty and made regular appearances on campus during election years to offer perspective on prevailing political attitudes of the day.

“You’re part of a very exciting, passionate, growing school. You’ve got an appreciating asset,” Cook said. “You always want an asset that’s going up in value, and the value of an Elon diploma is skyrocketing right now.”

Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and writes weekly for National Journal and CongressDailyAM. He is an analyst for CNN’s “Inside Politics” and regularly appears on major network shows, including NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week” and “Nightline,” and CBS Evening News.

His evening remarks were preceded earlier in the day with a news conference for some of North Carolina’s top political journalists. In the lunch hour with reporters, Cook made many of the same points he shared with his public audience, emphasizing the close nature of the Senate race between incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

In some ways, Cook told reporters, Hagan’s election six years ago was an anomaly. She benefitted from the Obama campaign’s statewide ground game, against an incumbent criticized for spending almost no time in the state. Neither of those are factors today.

However, Tillis has been tied to one of the most conservative legislatures in state history, and the inordinate length of time it took for lawmakers to pass a budget this summer and agree on other policy issues proved to be a weight on his campaign. “It’s evened the scales to what I think is as close a race as anywhere in the country,” Cook said. “You’re going to have a great race.”

And are campaign debates even worth the time? Cook’s evening lecture took place at the same time Hagan and Tillis squared off in a statewide televised debate from the studios of UNC TV in Chapel Hill. As he told reporters, in many ways, they don’t sway voters so much as give the opposition possible material to use in future advertisements.

The prevailing mentality most candidates bring to a debate, especially in races that are deadlocked, is a “do no harm” approach. “Neither one (Hagan or Tillis) is behind in polls by more than a point or two,” Cook said. “There’s no need to swing for the fences or take any chances.”