Five October surprises and booby traps

We’re just over a month away from the 2014 midterm elections, and trailing candidates have to start letting go of the hope that they can still catch up when voters start to pay attention. The feud between election prognosticators Nate Silver and Sam Wang is becoming irrelevant as both now agree that a Republican takeover of the Senate is probable, thanks to a batch of bad polls for Democrats. (This convergence was inevitable, since all of the prediction models attach a lot of importance to late polls. Silver’s model essentially argues that, for example, bad polling numbers in the spring for Republican Mitch McConnell should be eyed warily because Kentucky’s heavy tilt toward the GOP will re-emerge in the fall. For the most part, Silver has been right.)

So can anything change the expected outcome of the Republicans taking the Senate and holding onto the House with little change from the current membership? Can late developments push a number of races into one column or the other? Here are some factors that weren’t in view before Labor Day.

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The buck stops here. All midterm elections are influenced by the popularity of the man in the White House, and Barack Obama is no great help to the Democratic Party right now. Republicans are looking for any opportunity to tag him with a reputation as a bad administrator, all the better to argue that the opposition party needs to control Congress and serve as a watchdog. Given the vastness of the federal bureaucracy, there are always opportunities to employ this strategy against a president. Earlier this year, there was the Department of Veterans Affairs and reports of poor treatment (and falsified records) at the VA Hospital in Phoenix. More recently, there was Chris Christie (the guy with no responsibility for the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge) slamming Obama for saying that intelligence officers underestimated the threat of ISIS in the Middle East. “You have to be accountable for, stand up, explain your position but say, I’m ultimately accountable,” said Christie.

This strategy isn’t foolproof. Take the Secret Service, now being criticized for letting an intruder with a knife run into the White House (and not initially noticing that bullets hit the president’s residence in 2011). It can get pretzel-like to accuse Obama of being lax about his own security, and Politico got way too cute with a piece called “Something Is Rotten in the Secret Service.” Reporter Ronald Kessler closed with: “Agents tell me it’s a miracle an assassination hasn’t already occurred. Sadly, given Obama’s colossal lack of management judgment, that calamity may be the only catalyst that will reform the Secret Service.” Those two sentences have been removed from the website (but preserved by New York magazine), and they show it’s not always appropriate to beat up the president with Harry Truman’s desk sign.

The Ebola virus. Now that the first case of the deadly Ebola virus in the United States has been diagnosed, the epidemic is sure to be a major topic in the last month of the campaign. Will there be calls for increased U.S. assistance in West Africa, where the disease has already claimed more than 2,200 lives? Will this be a chance for the Centers for Disease Control — which had a higher favorability rating than any other federal agency, according to a 2013 poll — to show that the federal government, and by extension the Obama administration, can handle a crisis? (The most cynical prediction I’ve seen on Twitter is from BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski: “At some point in the next few days a congressman will make a comment tying Ebola to migrant children.”)

ISIS. Candidates are still trying to figure out the Goldilocks position (not too hawkish, not too isolationist) on the American response to the Islamic militant force in Iraq and Syria. The Democratic nominee in Iowa’s Senate race, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, recently said in a debate, “I recently had the opportunity to vote to give the president limited authority to begin strikes against terrorists in Iraq and Syria.” But the website Politifact slapped down this claim as “false,” pointing out that the legislation Braley referred to “is all about the United States providing training and supplies to the Syrian rebels” and says nothing about air strikes. In fact, Congress has let Obama take the responsibility for ordering air strikes.

This strategy means one less vote for members of Congress to defend if things go wrong, but it could come off as weaselly. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who’s not up for re-election this year but is assumed to be a presidential candidate in 2016, criticized Obama (and, by implication, congressional leaders) in a speech last week: “I would have laid out the threat and I would have requested congressional authority to respond. By failing, he missed the chance to galvanize the country and to become a great American leader.” (Paul Waldman sarcastically notes the president’s negligence in coming up with a Desert Storm–like name for the military operation: “If the Obama administration had really wanted to get people excited about fighting ISIS, they should have called it Operation Turgid Thrusting or Operation Boundless Glory.”)

Democrats fret that they’ll be seen as “soft” on terrorism, especially if there is a high-profile act of aggression by ISIS before Election Day. But Vox.com’s Zack Beauchamp points out that civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes could rise dramatically, partly by the design of the enemy: “ISIS knows the US doesn’t want to kill civilians and will almost certainly exploit that. They’ll move assets in and around cities they control — such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq — and dare the US to risk missing them and hitting civilians.” A high number of casualties, especially if accompanied by graphic videos and photos, could make American voters wary of intervention in the Middle East — and less willing to believe we can turn back ISIS without putting our own troops on the ground.

Hong Kong. Pro-democracy demonstrations in the Chinese territory have not dominated headlines the way they might have in the sleepier news months of summer, so the Obama administration has been able to tread lightly in voicing support for “Occupy Hong Kong.” But there’s a strong religious component to the story, as Christian groups have become prominent in the demonstrations (see the America report on the involvement of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun), partly as a way to draw attention to the Chinese government’s repression of religious freedom. American military intervention is not a serious option, but Obama opponents may use his caution in China as another part of an attack on a “weak and indecisive” foreign policy.

Party control of U.S. Senate. How, you ask, can this be an October issue when it’s always been the most important question to be settled in the midterms? According to a Rasmussen poll released in September, only 63 percent of “likely voters” know that the Democrats are now the majority in the Senate, with 18 percent believing the GOP already is in control. The biggest question is how many voters care who controls the Senate (and the House, though there’s little suspense about that this year). Party control could become more important to voters because of gridlocked issues (minimum wage, responses to climate change, etc.) or because the Senate decides who gets to be on the Supreme Court.

Voters in Kansas are likely to become the most informed about the ramifications of who controls the Senate. That’s because they’re choosing between an incumbent Republican (Pat Roberts) and an independent (Greg Orman) who has not said which party he would caucus with. (The Democratic nominee has dropped out of the race.) Orman, who is slightly ahead in a recent poll, is going after the true independent vote by running ads criticizing both parties, but if the election is at all close, he’ll be getting most of his votes from Democrats. If Orman wins, the Democrats will have stumbled on a way to get some Senate votes in red states: Stay out of the election to make room for an independent, then hope he or she sides with them in Washington, at least some of the time. It’s a big-tent strategy! (The Democratic Senate caucus already has two independents, from Maine and Vermont.)

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