Yesterday, the NBC Political Unit looked at the 10-biggest political stories of 2013. Today, we unveil our 10-biggest stories to watch in 2014:
1. The midterms: Come Nov. 2014, we’ll find out if Republicans are able to win control of the Senate; they need to pick up six seats to accomplish that feat – a real possibility given the conservative-leaning playing field. Another angle is if Democrats can gain the 17 House seats needed to retake that chamber, a prospect that looks less likely. (Due to redistricting, there are far fewer swing seats than in past years, never mind the issue of health care.) Then there will be the establishment-vs.-Tea Party Republican primaries we’ll see, including ones targeting the top-two GOP Senate leaders. And finally, 2014 will feature a whopping 36 gubernatorial contests, including ones in Florida (Rick Scott vs. Charlie Crist), Ohio (Kasich’s re-election), Wisconsin (Scott Walker’s re-election), and Texas (Greg Abbott vs. Wendy Davis). Before Walker or Kasich can run for president, they have to get through tough re-election fights.
2. Can Obama rebound? Despite being the first president to win reelection twice with at least 51% of the vote since Eisenhower in 1956, this past year was not kind to President Obama. Because of the botched health-care website rollout, the NSA and other problems, the president ended the year with the lowest poll numbers of his presidency. He started out his post-reelection brimming with confidence, but was unable to get through any of his second-term agenda – be it immigration reform, new gun laws, tax reform, or much of anything else. What’s worse: Historians generally give presidents six to eight months to get those agendas accomplished, and we’re well beyond that. Does that mean he’s doomed to early lame-duck status? Or will something break the logjam in Washington?
3. Does the health-care law and website enjoy more success in 2014 than it did in 2013? One key to a Obama rebound will be a better 2014 for the president’s health-care law. As Democratic pollster Fred Yang said, “As health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency for next year.” There are already signs of improvement for the health-care website. Will that continue? And do Republicans transition from talk of “repeal” to trying to fix what might be wrong with the law? All of that could have an impact not just on the law, but on the president’s standing – always important in a midterm year.
4. Iran deal: The easy part was the United States and European powers striking an interim deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons. Now comes the hard part. It’s unclear if Iran will actually give up its nuclear ambitions. It’s all easier said than done, and it may be one of the more overlooked stories out there with all the focus on health care. Consider: Success could be a huge diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration. And failure, handled inappropriately, could trigger war.
5. Economy (does it continue to improve?): Is it the economy, stupid? The unemployment rate dropped to a five-year low of 7% in November. That continued a steady decline from 10% in October 2009, at the height of the recession. It’s hard to believe that if the unemployment rate – and the other improving economic data – continues to get better that President Obama won’t benefit or at a minimum, that it doesn’t benefit Democrats a bit nationally. But it’s not about numbers, it’s about perception and the issue of income inequality is a bigger driver in the perception of the economy right now.
6. Can immigration pass the House? Immigration reform passed overwhelmingly in the Senate before hitting a brick wall in the House. Will we see COMPREHENSIVE immigration reform in one bill in 2014? Probably not. But President Obama has indicated a willingness to pass some of these piece-meal items that House Speaker John Boehner has talked about. And Boehner’s hire of an aide known in the reform community might show he’s serious about getting something done. So maybe immigration reform isn’t dead after all! Of course, the sticking point has always been a path to citizenship. Will Obama be OK with creating a path to “legalization” that would create what would amount to a permanent second-class of immigrants in the U.S.?
7. The 2016 jockeying: Yes, the first 2016 contests are more than two years away, but there has already been a lot of potential 2016 candidates making their ways to early states and some who have already seen a sharp rise and fall for their presidential prospects. The belle of the GOP ball right now is Chris Christie. But we’re already seeing signs that may not be permanent. Can the Christie balloon last through 2014 and into 2015. Maybe. But there will be others also jockeying – think Scott Walker, who will be up for reelection in a Midwestern swing state. Of course, if he loses… Does Ted Cruz continue to be a rock star with the base? Can Rand Paul continue to thread the needle? Does Marco Rubio make a comeback? And, of course, does Hillary Clinton inch closer to a run, or does something else happen that makes her decide to buck the conventional wisdom and back away? By the end of 2014, we’ll have a MUCH clearer picture of the Clinton candidacy, that’s for sure.
8. GOP’s ideological civil war (does it continue?): From John Boehner in the House to Republican Senate primaries, there is plenty to watch in the GOP internecine fights. We’ll get an early look March 4 when John Cornyn takes on Rep. Steve Stockman and then May 20 with McConnell against Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky. Imagine if the establishment sweeps these primaries? Does it end up marginalizing the Tea Party? Would be a HUGE story if it happened going into the 2016 primary season.
9. Debt ceiling (Does it become another fiscal fight? Or are the budget battles really over for the next two years?) Congress came together and passed a budget that prevents government shutdowns for the next two years, but the deal did nothing to address the debt ceiling – and it needs to be raised Feb. 7 (!!!). Republican leaders have already signaled a fight, wanting cuts in everything from the health care law to social programs to approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
10. FL-13 special (If Democrats have ANY chance of winning back the House, they need to win this race): This race to replace the late Rep. Bill Young will be the first of our top 10 that gets spotlighted. The primary here is less than a month away --- Jan. 14 with the general election set for March 11. President Obama carried this Gulf Coast district in 2012, so it’s exactly the kind of place Democrat MUST win if they have any hopes of taking back the House next fall.