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Obamacare or not, GOP well positioned for 2014

Democrat Alex Sink (C) and Republican David Jolly, both candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, shake hands before participating in a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014.
Democrat Alex Sink (C) and Republican David Jolly, both candidates for Florida's congressional District 13, shake hands before participating in a candidate forum in Clearwater, Florida, February 25, 2014.

Republicans are no doubt waking up with a spring in their step after David Jolly’s upset victory in Florida’s 13th District.

The contest took place in the closest of swing districts, having gone for Obama by just a 50-49 margin in 2012. Winning back the House was always a longshot for Democrats this year, but FL-13 is the kind of seat they absolutely need if they hope to make any gains, let alone stave off further losses.

Special elections in the House aren’t a great indicator of November results – Democrats won three tough contests in 2009 and 2010 only to get blown out in the midterms. But it’s hardly the only reason they should be worried.

As a new NBC/WSJ survey indicates, Democrats face plenty of headwinds as the elections heat up. President Obama’s approval rating is just 41%, the lowest ever recorded by the poll, with 54% of respondents saying they disapprove of his performance.

The party that holds the White House in a president’s second term tends to lose big in midterms historically. Democrats face unique disadvantages of their own, as key planks of the Obama coalition, mainly young and minority voters, tend to turn out less in midterm elections while the GOP’s base of older, white voters still show up to the polls. They’ll have a tough time bucking the trend if Obama can’t improve his personal popularity.

“The wind is in our face,” Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster for Hart Research who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, told NBC News. “There is an advantage for Republicans right now.”

Republicans aren’t exactly looking great either: the party’s approval rating is 27-45. That’s good enough for the zero-sum gain world of electoral politics, however, where respondents said by a 44-43 margin they’d prefer the GOP control Congress after the next elections.

All things being equal, it’s a narrow lead. But the House’s current districting favors Republicans, meaning Democrats would have to significantly outperform the GOP to make gains. In 2012, Republicans easily held the House even as Americans casted more votes for Democrats overall.

The real danger is in the Senate, where the GOP has a promising shot at picking up the six seats they need to dislodge the Democrats’ majority. As is the case with the House, Republicans have significant built-in advantages this year: six years after Obama’s 2008 landslide, a number of red-state Democrats like Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, face tough re-election fights. Democratic retirements in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia also give the GOP fertile pickup opportunities.  

Republicans have long argued that public dissatisfaction with Obamacare is the straw stirring the drink in midterm races. That belief is only going to be bolstered by Jolly’s victory on Tuesday, in which Republican and conservative groups poured millions of dollars into ads attacking the health care law.  Congressman Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday that Sink lost “because of her unwavering support for Obamacare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast."

While Democrats’ difficulties are well established, how much they stem from Obamacare is less clear. The law’s not popular: 35% of respondents to the NBC/WSJ poll said it was a good idea versus 49% who said it was a bad one. But 48% of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a Democrat who backed keeping and fixing the law versus 47% who said they were more likely to back a Republican who wanted to repeal it entirely.

Democrats think Republicans are overreaching by demanding full repeal, opening them up to charges that they’d roll back the laws’ more popular provisions, like an end to discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions. A number of polls have found that Americans oppose eliminating the law entirely even as they consistently disapprove of its performance so far. 

Whether Obamacare is driving Democrats’ doldrums or not, the party’s precarious position in 2014 remains the same. As things stand, the GOP has a significant advantage in the House and Senate alike.