Cook, left, and Rothenberg, right, at IRI Vision. (Photo: Insured Retirement Institute)

Traveling down to Williamsburg for the Insured Retirement Institute Vision conference, Washington political pundits Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook handicapped the upcoming midterm election and looked ahead to the 2016 presidential election.

Their message: the House will stay Republican — “which is really two parties in one,” said Rothenberg  — and the Senate may very well turn Republican. However, the dysfunction that has marked Washington isn’t going away anytime soon, and you can forget about any comprehensive tax reform.

Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, and Rothenberg, who holds the same titles for The Rothenberg Political Report in addition to being a columnist for Roll Call, described themselves as independent analysts who, in Rothenberg’s words, simply tell “what’s happening” in politics, and “why and what you should look for.” 

With only five weeks until the midterm election, Rothenberg was confident that the House of Representatives “will stay Republican — which is really two parties in one” and that a “whole bunch of conservatives will be elected to the House,” which means that “John Boehner’s problems will continue,” assuming he remains  speaker.

As for the Senate, the makeup of the next Congress will, he said, “depend on one key question” for voters: “What is this election about?” Republicans are trying to make the election a referendum on President Barack Obama and his policies (especially Obamacare) and on regulation and his personality. Democrats are saying it’s not about Obama, since “he’s not on the ballot.” Instead, they’re trying to “localize” the election, especially for incumbents like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana: “It’s about me!”

So if the Republicans are successful in making it “all about Obama,” the Republicans will take control of the Senate, since most national polls find only 40% of Americans think Obama is doing a good job, making it “easy to run against the president.”

Can the Democrats localize the election? Maybe, said Rothenberg, but it will be difficult, especially since Mitt Romney carried seven states in 2012 where Democratic senatorial incumbents are up for re-election. However, Rothenberg said that if Obama’s job approval rating “gets into the 45, 46, 47” percent range, helped by the president’s tough tactics against ISIS, “I would dramatically change my thinking.”

But even if the GOP wins the Senate and holds the House, “it won’t dramatically change Washington,” Rothenberg said, arguing that “it’s hard for me to say any big things will get done. What about fundamental tax reform? “You think the Democrats want to cut corporate tax rates to make us more competitive, and take that issue away” from the 2016 election? Unlikely. Instead, he said, using a twist on an old football metaphor, “We’re headed for a half a yard and a cloud of dust,” meaning “we’ll muddle along for another couple of years.” Cook was a little less sanguine about Republican prospects in the Senate, noting that they can’t afford to lose their Senators from Georgia and Kansas, and that control in the upper chamber might mean the GOP “would have to win a purple state,” and that therefore it could come down to Senate races in Iowa and Colorado.

Turning to the 2016 presidential contenders, Cook said “Hillary’s probably running, and probably wins nomination,” noting that the argument against her age doesn’t hold water — she would be the same age as Ronald Reagan was in 1980, when he was elected to his first term.

What might keep her from running for president is that the process “is horrific,” Cook said. “Nobody knows that better than Hillary.”

Unlike this year, Cook said that Republican hopes for the Senate “look bad in 2016,” since there will be 24 Republican incumbent seantors up for re-election, including six in states Obama won in 2012.

Answering an IRI audience member’s question about what he would do to change the dysfunction in Washington, Cook immediately answered: “redistricting reform and primary election reform,” allowing independent voters to participate in primaries.

He added a third, only half in jest: shut down C-Span.

Why? Because along with the rise of the Internet, televising the legislative branch’s proceedings adds to the political polarity in the country. However, Cook said, the problem “isn’t just politics — it’s a technological problem; the Internet has helped polarize politics immensely” citing “the mean-spirited, angry emails, the anonymous comments, a coarsening of the political discourse.”

He tacked on one extra problem: “the people on the coasts don’t share the same values as people in the middle of the country,” though he expressed the hope that “maybe younger people will change” that polarized dynamic.

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