WASHINGTON -- Republicans plan to make the 2014 campaign for control of Congress a referendum on President Barack Obama, hoping discontent will help them win control of the Senate and hold their majority in the House of Representatives.
Republicans need a net gain of six Senate seats to win control of that chamber, a goal analysts see as within reach. The Republican House majority, now 234 to 199, appears safe.
“This election’s going to be about Barack Obama,” Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters Wednesday. Favorite Republican lines included arguing “Obama’s economy continues to sputter and struggle to rebound.”
Democrats countered Wednesday with a plan they said would boost the middle class. Their list included equal pay for men and women doing equal work, easing the student loan burden and increasing the federal minimum wage.
Democrats are buoyed by an economy rebounding at healthy levels. The nation’s unemployment rate sank to 6.1 percent last month, its best showing in nearly six years. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, an important measure of consumer sentiment, went up in May and again in June.
Most Republicans pledge lower taxes and repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Such ideas “continue to double down on the same failed policies that voters have rejected time and again,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin.
While the economy remains a pivotal issue, it’s vying with other matters for voter attention. A July 7-10 Gallup poll found immigration surging to the top of voter concerns. Close behind were dissatisfaction with government, the economy in general and unemployment.
Collins insisted those numbers will not hurt Republicans, because perceptions, not data, matter most. “The perception the economy is doing better is not selling very well,” he said.
He pointed to different numbers. A Pew Research Center survey this month found two-thirds of Americans dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, down from 81 percent last fall during the government shutdown but still unusually high.
While both parties use the economy to attract voters, they have another important 2014 strategy: Finding issues that motivate their most loyal voters to turn out.
Republicans’ task is to convince their most ardent voters that Obama is not fit to be president. They’re trying to rally that constituency with events such as the House Rules Committee hearing Wednesday on whether to authorize a lawsuit against the president for overreaching his authority.
Obama’s popularity is down in states with key Senate races, and overall, Gallup’s latest national approval number for him is 43 percent. Disapproval is at 51 percent.
Republicans see a familiar trend developing, as the president’s party traditionally loses congressional seats in his sixth year. “His unpopularity is going to be a real drag on Democrats,” Collins said.
Democrats sense an opportunity to offset any Obama-inspired losses with a special plea to women. Democrats put aside most other Senate business this week to rail against the Supreme Court’s June decision exempting certain employers from offering free contraceptive coverage for religious reasons.
The issue is probably dead in Congress, since an effort to limit debate and proceed on a measure to ease the court ruling’s impact fell four votes short of the 60 needed. The vote, though, did give Democrats a fresh chance to protest the decision and to highlight the widespread Republican support for it.
Democrats need women, particularly unmarried women, at the polls in November, since they tend to vote disproportionately for the party’s candidates.
In Iowa, a new Marist/NBC News survey released Wednesday found Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, tied with state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Braley leads among women, Ernst among men.
In New Hampshire, another state where Republicans see a Senate opportunity, women make the difference. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, leads former Sen. Scott Brown, who had represented Massachusetts, by 8 percentage points. The key reason: Shaheen has a 25 percentage point lead among women.
Republicans fight back by stressing women care most about the economy _ a point reinforced in most polls. They also maintain Democrats exaggerate the impact of the Supreme Court decision.
“There is nothing in the Hobby Lobby ruling that allows a company to stop a woman from getting or filling a prescription for contraception,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.