Independent political analyst Charlie Cook says it's too soon to know what "theme" will come to define the 2014 midterm elections. Describing the "two competing theories" speeding around the Beltway, he explains that either the Republican "brand" problems will continue to drag down GOP candidates with key segments of the electorate, or the Affordable Care Act's new requirements will work to undermine Democratic candidates.
But midterm elections aren't about themes. They're about presidents—their coattails in the previous election, their current popularity, and their party's in-power status. Despite the fact that his name won't be printed at the top of any Democratic ticket, President Barack Obama will be on every voter's ballot in 2014 and his presence will likely hurt his party.
Even though political scientists argue over how to interpret and forecast these electoral outcomes, all acknowledge one persistent pattern: Since 1934, the president's party almost always loses House seats and frequently loses Senate seats in the midterm elections. In sum, the only real question about 2014 is how much damage will the Democrats sustain?
While the Democrats have managed to spin the 2010 election into a relative success on the basis of "only" losing majority control of the House (unlike 1994), no one should forget that Democrats did lose six seats in the Senate that year. As it happens, that's the number of pick-ups the Republicans need in 2014 to gain that chamber's majority.
But more to the point, opposition party themes (e.g., "Contract with America" and "Culture of Corruption") take hold and wave elections build when the public is dissatisfied with the president and his party has unified government control. As Gallup explained prior to the election in 2010, "history shows that presidents who have sub-50 percent approval ratings prior to midterm elections generally see their parties suffer large congressional seat losses."
Given that our federal government is already divided (unlike 2006 and 2010), it seems improbable that a giant Republican wave will come to swamp Democrats next year. Still, given the large number of pick-up opportunities in the Senate and the miniscule number of competitive seats in the House, one imagines history's tendencies will favor the GOP.
Obama may not be in for another "shellacking," but he's surely in for a disappointment. All of this makes next year's electoral theme simple: "Republicans are back."