14 for '14: Some Bold Political Predictions for the New Year

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By Larry Sabato, CP Guest Contributor
December 20, 2013|1:13 pm

As we wrap up our publishing schedule for 2013, we looked into the Crystal Ball to offer some predictions for next year. While the picture is still a little hazy for the 2014 midterms, we've got some other prognostications related to the political year to come and some hints about what you should expect.

1. At least one additional U.S. senator will announce his or her retirement in 2014. We're giving ourselves some wide latitude here, because it's possible the retirement will come after the 2014 midterms. But we suspect at some point next year another senator will decide to quit; the question is, will it be an incumbent who determines he or she cannot win in 2014 - similar to ex-Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), who retired in late 2011 after realizing his perilous political position - or will it be someone who retires for another reason - like ex-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who left the game in early 2012 because of frustration despite having an easy road to another term.

While it's not technically a retirement, another important development shook the Senate Wednesday evening: Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) is reportedly going to be nominated as ambassador to China. Baucus had previously announced his retirement, but this would open up his seat well in advance of the midterm election. After Baucus would resign, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) would then reportedly appoint Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D) to fill out the rest of Baucus' term. Walsh was already running for the seat, and being an incumbent would make him a stronger candidate both against his main primary opponent, ex-Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D), and Rep. Steve Daines (R), the likely Republican nominee and current general election favorite. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts here, so as of this writing - Wednesday evening - we're not going to change our rating in this race yet. But provided this scenario unfolds as follows - Baucus resigns, and Bullock appoints Walsh to the seat - we'll be very tempted to move this race from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

2. There will be at least one surprising result in a Republican Senate primary. Several Republican senators are facing primary challenges next year, and there are also Tea Party insurgents running in other Senate contests who are hoping to win the Republican nomination over more establishment-oriented challengers. Frankly, we think there is a little more smoke than fire in many of these races, but it's also clear that the battle for the soul of the GOP continues, and that there are several outside groups (like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund) that will fund outsider candidates. So expect at least one upset in a Republican Senate primary this year in which either an incumbent senator goes down (like Richard Mourdock's primary win over then-Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana last cycle) or an establishment favorite is knocked off before he or she can advance to the general election (such as Sue Lowden's loss to Sharron Angle in Nevada's 2010 Senate primary).

3. Fewer than a half-dozen incumbent governors will lose reelection (including renomination defeats). We've noted throughout the year that despite many competitive gubernatorial races, there might not be the kind of turnover in the statehouses that we saw in 2010 because there are so many incumbent governors running: Of 36 races coming next November, incumbents are running for reelection in 29 of them. In 2010, just 13 incumbents ran in the general election, which contributed to a great deal of turnover even though only two incumbents actually lost reelection bids. In the 13 midterms conducted over the past half-century (the years when most gubernatorial races are held), an average of 4.5 incumbent governors lost in each general election. Given that no incumbent governor seems to be in serious danger of losing a primary next year at this point, it appears likely that only a relative handful of incumbents will lose.

4. The result in the special U.S. House election in FL-13 will get far too much attention. If ever there was an apparent bellwether special election, the one coming up in FL-13 this March would seem to be it. The district went 50%-49% for President Obama in 2012, quite similar to his 51%-47% national edge over Mitt Romney. Not only that, but the district is located entirely in Pinellas County, which can fairly be described as one of the key presidential swing counties in the entire country (Obama won this Tampa-area county with 52% of the vote in 2012). The seat, held for decades by the late Rep. Bill Young (R), is probably a necessary part of any future Democratic House majority. It is particularly valuable to the party of Jackson's long shot hopes of winning the lower chamber, but the result won't necessarily be predictive of anything. The local issues emerging in the race will be unique to it, and the national environment guiding the results will not necessarily be replicated in the full midterm, which will be held about eight months later (several eternities in politics). But that won't stop a lot of breathless projection from a single House result. We'll try to keep a level head about it.

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5. There will be more House retirements. The race for the House was rocked by three important retirements Tuesday. First, Rep. Frank Wolf (R, VA-10), who was initially elected in 1980, called it quits, giving Democrats an opportunity to win a Northern Virginia seat that's very balanced politically. Then, Rep. Jim Matheson (D, UT-4) became the first Democrat this cycle to retire (although some others are leaving the House to run for other offices). That was quickly followed by the exit of Rep. Tom Latham (R, IA-3), who, like Wolf, holds a swingy House district (Latham's seat backed Obama in 2012, while Wolf's backed Romney).

These retirements prompted some dramatic ratings changes: VA-10 and IA-3 go from Likely Republican to Toss-up, and UT-4 - the most Republican-leaning House district held by any Democrat - goes from Leans Democratic to Likely Republican.

Expect more retirements. Over the past 40 years, there has been an average of 22 House retirements each cycle (this is according to Roll Call's helpful congressional casualty list). So far, there have only been nine House retirements this cycle; if no more members retire - unlikely - it would tie for the smallest total over the past four decades (the 1983-1984 cycle). However, given the historical average, it's a safe bet that more are coming.

For more on what we're calling "Getaway Day" in the House, check out this report on the Crystal Ball website.

6. Scandal will cost several House members their seats, through defeat at the polls or resignation. It's hard to beat House incumbents, who are reelected in general elections at a greater than 90 percent clip. Those who do end up losing are typically either on the wrong side of a party wave or have crippling personal or ethical problems. Expect some representatives to end up in the latter camp this year. For instance, Reps. Scott DesJarlais (R, TN-4) and Trey Radel (R, FL-19) are both suffering from terrible publicity, and Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D, NY-13) various ethical problems surely contributed to his near-defeat in a primary last cycle. There are others, on both sides of the aisle, with ethical questions that could derail them next year. The lower chamber of Congress is called the "People's House" because it's supposed to be representative of the average American, capturing both the towering heights and depth-defying lows of the human experience. Its members, at the very least, often do a very good job of epitomizing the latter.

7. An anti-Hillary will begin to emerge in the Democratic Party for 2016. Yes, Hillary Clinton is a big favorite to win her party's nomination for president in 2016. But there's too much lingering resentment among Democrats for her and her husband, and too much baggage - like Clinton's 2002 Iraq War vote, which remains a liability more than a decade later - for her not to at least receive at least a minimal challenge from someone for the nomination. One possibility to watch: ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana.

8. One or more new disputes or issues will emerge that the news media will label game-changers for the midterm, but actually won't change much of anything. There will almost certainly be something that happens nationally, or in a given race, that will affect the outcome of the midterm. There also will be several developments that will seem big at the time but will probably end up being pretty meaningless. Consider President Obama's "you didn't build that" or Mitt Romney's "corporations are people" remarks from the last cycle: Yes, they made headlines and provided fodder for the opposition. But it's a sizable stretch to say that either remark moved many votes.

9. As President Obama slips fully into lame-duck status, an ex-Obama staffer will publish a highly critical book or major magazine piece on his flaws. And it might well reflect worse on Valerie Jarrett, the president and first lady's close adviser, than it will on the first family (Jarrett has been absolutely hammered in recent post-election books and articles).

10. Trial balloons for wannabe presidential candidates will endanger commercial air traffic over Iowa. So fly safe.

11. The national GOP will restructure its presidential nominating process, following the successful precedents set by national Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s. Oh, wait…

12. Third-party candidates will make few inroads in the 2014 midterms despite widespread dissatisfaction with Congress. Hate it or love it, the United States is locked into a two-party system, with very few exceptions. There are numerous reasons for why this is this case, but we'll defer to The Simpsons for a concise explanation.

13. People who follow Washington reporters and analysts through social media will learn far more than they need or want to know about DC's sports teams and weather. Be ready for the next (non)-apocalyptic snowstorm, coming to a place (maybe not) near you.

14. Finally, we believe that elections for at least 35 Senate seats, 435 House seats, and 36 governorships will occur in the new year. In collaboration with the Farmers' Almanac, we have picked the likeliest date for these elections: Nov. 4, 2014. Call us crazy, but we feel really good about this one.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and is a regular contributor on Fox News.
 

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