WATERVILLE, Maine -- With three weeks remaining before the critical midterm congressional elections, the character of American politics for the next two years and for the presidential campaign that will begin in earnest next month is unusually uncertain. In fact, the contours of our national civic life are more undefined than they have been since the overtime election of 2000 — a period of ambiguity no one is eager to repeat.
So, as the election nears, the American political landscape can be described as a combination of enthusiasm and ennui that defies clear definition.
In fact, enthusiasm and ennui are co-existing comfortably this fall: Republicans feel they are poised to capture the Senate, giving them complete control of the legislative branch and providing them a battering ram against President Barack Obama and his comprehensive health care overhaul. Then again, last week Tom Wolf, with a commanding lead over GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, sat unrecognized in an airport departure lounge as he prepared to take a flight between Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where he has saturated the airwaves.
So in this unusual interregnum of insurgency and indifference, several vital questions remain unanswered:
• Who will win the Senate?
No one knows, but rephrasing the question slightly might provide some insight: Would you rather be a Republican strategist right now or a Democratic one?
The nod has to go to the Republican side. Most polls put the Republicans slightly or confidently ahead in the Senate contests that matter most, which is to say the very few places where GOP incumbents were thought to be endangered and the great many places where Democrats have stood down or are facing tough re-election battles.
Political reporters like to use a facile phrase when discussing individual races — “this contest could determine who will control the Senate” — but every race can be described that way. Only in a few places like Kansas, where an embattled Republican incumbent disliked even by the people who support him, Sen. Pat Roberts, faces an independent, Greg Orman, does that phrase perhaps apply this time around. And there the advantage to Mr. Orman is as much as 10 percentage points.
• What kind of Republicans get elected to the Senate?
Mostly very conservative ones, and the Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel, who studies congressional races, has concluded that the Republicans likely to be elected will be more conservative than the ones they replace or the current Republican Senate caucus as a whole.
The exception is perhaps the last moderate Republican in the Senate, Susan Collins of Maine, a state that, despite its Republican heritage — it was one of only two states to side against Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 — has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in the last six elections. The red-and-white Collins lawn signs, prominent on rural byways throughout the state, don’t identify her as a Republican but instead describe her simply as “Our Senator.”
A Senate in Republican hands is a tough enough prospect for the president. One in Republican hands with a conservative character approaching that of the House would make Mr. Obama’s last two years a nightmare.
• How will Democrats, who have assiduously avoided any association with Mr. Obama, behave in January if they prevail in November?
Here’s more bad news for the president. These lawmakers will owe him nothing and, given his approval ratings, will at least initially still fear association with him — not that he is in any case a master of the outstretched hand (the term comes from George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address) or even of a shared cocktail hour after a pleasant golf afternoon.
Parties in control of the White House customarily get a shellacking in the sixth year of an administration, but presidents don’t ordinarily suffer an approval rating as low as Mr. Obama’s. At 42 percent in Gallup polling, it is slightly higher than George W. Bush’s 37 percent at the same point in his second term, but the average is 47 percent, with Ronald Reagan at 63 and Bill Clinton at 65.
The president’s health care legislation wouldn’t be in danger with a Senate controlled by Republicans or by Democrats who won office despite him and are skeptical of, or hostile to, Obamacare; he retains veto power. But even in the best-case scenario for the president, the prospects for new initiatives are very slim.
• Would it be better for the Republicans to take control of Congress or to come close and leave the chamber with a slender Democratic majority?
This is a yeasty but foolish debate; lingering over this question in the parlors of Georgetown or in the office suites of K Street consultants will have no effect on the results.
But here are the basic arguments: If the Republicans win, they could show they are responsible enough to be entrusted with governing the country and controlling both political branches of government in 2017. On the other hand, their conservative insurgency could be so powerful in both chambers of Congress that the GOP political profile would be one of extremism, prompting the country to recoil from the notion of a Republican president. This sentiment could harden further if one of the three most-caffeinated contenders — Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Marco Rubio — wins the 2016 nomination.
• What’s the thing no one’s watching?
The lame-duck session. How the election turns out may be less important than what happens in the two months between the election and the convening of the 114th Congress in January.
No matter how the contests turn out — a Republican Senate with a fortified tea wing, or a Democratic Senate barely clinging to power, or runoffs in Georgia and Louisiana that leave the Senate in limbo — the best chance to get much accomplished before the next presidency will occur in that lame-duck session, when vital budget, immigration and national-security questions will be examined free of election concerns. Some of the lawmakers may have been repudiated or are retiring — which means they might actually do what is best for the country.