Say what will you about 2014, but it hasn't stuck to anyone's script so far. The Beltway punditry has strained to find a consistent national narrative all year. And after the shocking defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor and unlikely triumph of GOP Sen. Thad Cochran due to a groundswell of African American support, we should probably expect an election full of the unexpected.
Nearly four months out from November, there are still no clear signs of an impending wave, like we saw in 2010 and 2006, which would impact virtually every midterm race.
What if this means that to some extent, as the old adage goes, all politics are once again local in 2014? Will this year be determined more by state and local dynamics, issues, and candidate qualities than the two previous midterms?
If so, progressive groups' efforts to lift base voter turnout well beyond what we saw in 2010 can clearly determine the outcome of many key races.
Let's acknowledge factors that may yet translate to another midterm wave or at least a very good night for Republicans. We face some significant headwinds in the current political environment, especially in red-leaning states with key U.S. Senate races. Very relevant metrics like President Obama's low approval ratings, persistently high "wrong track" numbers, and the potential base turnout gap are structural disadvantages for progressives this year. And of course, turnout will be absolutely crucial. If progressive voters stay home again, many progressive candidates in tight races will fall short.
Right now, however, there are many major differences from what the political world looked like in 2010. At the state level, for example, progressives are playing far more offense than defense.
FiveThirtyEight recently updated gubernatorial projections indicating Democrats have at least a 20 percent chance of winning 9 GOP-held seats, while Republicans have just two pickup opportunities. At this point four years ago, all of these gubernatorial races were leaning heavily GOP.
What's different this year? The answer is that unlike in 2010, these races are now referendums on conservative policies that are deeply unpopular.
Voters generally expect their state's leaders to focus on community concerns like investing in local public schools and creating jobs. Instead, conservatives turned states into social experiments - slashing taxes and gutting basic services, attacking labor and workers' rights, blocking Medicaid expansion, infringing on women's reproductive freedom, favoring industries that pollute and destroy the environment, and making it harder to exercise our fundamental right to vote.
These failed conservative policies have had very real consequences and devastating impacts on local residents and their communities. At least seven right-wing governors who took this route -- in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- are struggling to retain the seats they won in the 2010. Yes, even the GOP incumbent in Kansas is in jeopardy due to an extreme conservative agenda that's too much for the Sunflower State.
But there's another factor that could enhance the importance of conservative state policies in this election: most of the groups hit hardest by these conservative laws are also comprised of the Rising American Electorate (RAE) -- African American, Hispanic, single women, and young voters. These voters were central to President Obama's victory in many key states, but a lot of conservative governors and legislators also owe their jobs to the fact that RAE voters largely stayed home in 2010.
The "wild card" impact of increased turnout among RAE voters in the 2014 midterms cannot be overstated. African American voters could have a more substantial effect on the U.S. Senate in 2014 than any recent election. The Senate battleground states of Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina have black voting age populations ranging between 14 and 30 percent. There is strong evidence that black voter turnout exceeded whites in many southern states in 2012, and given the tight margins of all these races, it is very conceivable that a high African American turnout could deliver margins of victory as we saw in Mississippi last month.
Progressive groups have a hugely important role in meeting the challenge of turning out RAE voters over the next 16 weeks. America Votes and our many progressive partners have an advantage with long-standing coalitions permanently based in the states. We are working together to target "drop off" voters, engage them on state and local issues, and mobilize them to undo the damage caused by failed conservative policies over the last four years.
For those of us watching every poll and tea leaf to determine what kind of a midterm this year will bring: the safest prediction is to expect the unexpected. Right now, Democrats narrowly lead the generic congressional ballot whereas Republicans had a significant advantage four years ago. Will this be enough for Senate incumbents to win on their records serving red-leaning states? We'll see...
Indeed, this year all politics may be local...or at least more local than they've been in a very long time.