By Karl Rove
History is not on his side, but the GOP can’t afford to be out-hustled and out-fundraised.
President Obama likes pretending he floats above politics. In fact, he is the most compulsively partisan president in modern times. Everything he says and does is better understood through a partisan lens.
So consider the recent Washington Post article in which Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker reported Mr. Obama wants to “cement his legacy” by working “to flip the Republican-held House back to Democratic control” so he can then “push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office.”
How likely is Mr. Obama to “flip” the House in the 2014 midterm elections by taking the 17 Republican seats needed for a Democratic majority? Not likely at all. Since 1934, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 House seats in midterm elections. The president’s party has gained seats in only three midterms (1934, 1998 and 2002).
Second-term midterms like next year’s are even worse for the president’s party, with an average loss of 32 House seats. The only second-term midterm where the president’s party gained was 1998, with Democrats picking up five House seats. That was made possible when Republicans grossly overplayed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
To flip the House, Democrats will first focus on the 16 Republican congressmen whose districts were carried by Mr. Obama. But in 11 of these districts, Mr. Obama received less than 52%; and in four, less than 50%.
Nor is Mr. Obama likely to be much more popular by Election Day 2014. His Gallup job-approval rating this week was 49%; Mr. Clinton’s was 59% at this point in 1997 and 63% by the 1998 midterms. FDR’s was 52% before his second midterms in 1938 when Democrats lost 71 seats.
It is much more probable that Democrats will lose seats than “flip” the House in 2014. There are nine vulnerable Democratic congressmen whose districts were carried by Mitt Romney last fall. Six won with less than 51%; four with 50% or less.
There are another 13 Democratic congressmen whose districts were carried by the president but who themselves won re-election by less than 52%, four by less than 50%. Some of these, too, are at risk.
Team Obama knows its chances of flipping the House are small. But they will do two things that—if left unchecked—could result in more Democratic victories than otherwise expected.
The president’s campaign has now morphed into a grass-roots lobbying group called “Organizing for Action” that’s trying to energize Mr. Obama’s supporters over gun control, equal pay, abortion and gay marriage.
OFA says it won’t be involved directly in elections, but information about its contacts can be transferred to the Democratic National Committee to be used to drive up turnout among voters who might otherwise stay home.
Mr. Obama will also raise lots of campaign funds, having already agreed to headline an unprecedented eight fundraisers this year for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He’s likely to do even more for Democrat candidates next year.
Republicans must intensify their efforts if they want to keep Democrats from winning the House or degrading their 234 to 201 seat advantage there. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has been saying the right things about strengthening the GOP’s ground game and there’s more concern about the quality of GOP candidates than in years past.
But GOP candidates must have a more sophisticated data structure for get-out-the-vote activities—recall the Romney campaign’s disastrous “Project Orca”—than Democrats have. The GOP must be even more aggressive in raising money for party committees and candidates. That involves impressing upon GOP donors the dangers of losing the House or failing to gain in the Senate. Republicans must not be buried financially.
Mr. Obama’s approach carries risks for him. Focusing on divisive social issues like guns and gay marriage may rev up his base, but far more voters are concerned with the anemic economy, which is creating too few jobs and too much debt.
Then there’s governing, which the president is exceedingly bad at. Take his budget, introduced Wednesday. If the president were serious about governing, he’d make certain at least Democrats supported it. But if the GOP scheduled a vote on it in the House or offered it on the Senate floor, most Democrats would vote against the Obama budget.
The trouble with being all about politics is that voters eventually see it. If Mr. Obama wanted a second-term legacy based on substantive achievements, he’d be more bipartisan instead of always so political. But to do that would be to deny a fundamental part of who he is.
Mr. Rove, a former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, helped organize the political action committee American Crossroads.