Is there any real point to talking in any depth about the 2016 race? Of course not; it's too far away and the last presidential race was just nine months ago. But the 2014 midterms? That's something else entirely.
Byron York at the conservative Washington Examiner has a piece that's generated some interesting conversation today, suggesting that the conventional wisdom surrounding next year's congressional elections -- that the House Republican majority is a virtual lock -- is not universally accepted within the GOP.
Behind the scenes -- in whispered asides, not for public consumption -- some Republicans are now worried that keeping the House is not such a done deal after all. They look back to two elections, 1998 and 2006, in which Republicans seriously underperformed expectations, and they wonder if 2014 might be a little like those two unhappy years."The majority is at risk," says one well-connected Republican strategist.
A lot can and will happen between now and next fall, and making firm predictions this far out is a fool's errand. That said, I can understand why there's some anxiety in GOP circles.
On paper, the odds of Republicans losing their majority are long. Not only does the president's party nearly always lose seats in a sixth-year midterm, but after 2010, Republicans in state legislatures drew district lines in a ridiculously slanted way, seemingly guaranteeing a House GOP majority for the rest of the decade.
House Democrats made a net gain of eight seats in the 2012 congressional races, and an 18-seat pick-up for the House minority next year is difficult to imagine.
And yet, York's Republican sources are imagining it anyway. It's worth understanding why.
York's piece makes the case that the GOP's lack of a policy agenda undermines the party's chances of electoral success. I'm deeply skeptical of this -- voters generally don't know or care about whether national caucuses have detailed, substantive plans for the future.
Rather, I tend to think Republicans will struggle if they spend the next year further alienating and enraging the American mainstream, while giving the Democratic base a reason to show up in November 2014.
And how might the House GOP majority spend the next year further alienating and enraging the American mainstream? Well, they could shut down the government, instigate another debt-ceiling crisis, kill immigration reform, talk up impeachment, and vote a few dozen more times to take health care benefits away from millions of working families.
Indeed, remember the 1998 midterms? When Republicans expected to gain 20 or so House seats? They lost five and then-Speaker Gingrich was forced to resign in disgrace. It wasn't because Democrats had an "agenda" that voters liked; it's because the American mainstream thought the Republicans' impeachment crusade was insane.
Is it possible the mainstream could have a similar reaction to GOP radicalism in this Congress? Sure it is.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said several months ago, "The only way Republicans will lose the House is to shut down the government or default on the debt." Perhaps, but let's not forget that a pretty big chunk of congressional Republicans want to shut down the government and default on the debt."
If I were a betting man, I'd still put the odds heavily in the GOP's favor. Given the Republicans' structural, gerrymandered advantage, Democrats would need a seven-point popular-vote advantage to retake the House, and that's a pretty tall order.
But extremism among congressional Republicans can be pretty over the top these days, and the party has never been as unpopular as it is right now. If GOP leaders aren't considering the possibility of a popular backlash to their madness, they're not paying close enough attention.