Could the IRS scandal affect next year's midterms?

IRS sign with magnifying glass Internal revenue Service tax taxes CBS/iStockphoto

In an era where campaigns and election cycles seem to endlessly flow together, questions are already starting over what the IRS targeting scandal might mean for 2014. It's so far off that the best way to gauge impact isn't by President Obama's job approval now (which polls show hasn't moved much, anyhow) but by whether this has a more immediate effect on advance fundraising and candidate recruitment for the midterm races, and maybe in how it activates the base. Those are the kind of long-term, groundwork-laying activities that take place in an off-year and affect what we'll see later on.

First, for context, Republicans looked like they were already in an advantageous position for 2014. The scarcity of congressional swing districts and a gerrymandered map means they're starting off with a structural edge to keep the House. Most of the Senate's spotlight contests involve Democrats trying to hold on in red states of the South and Midwest, a map that offers the GOP a good shot to take Senate control. Historically, the "sixth year" of a president's term often sees difficulty for his party, too.

For Democrats trying to hold this off, their best-case scenario goes something like: their gangbusters turnout operation from 2012 can work in a midterm election; a few key states see Republicans get bogged down in divisive primary battles or pick candidates too far to the right for a general election, costing them races that should have been easy, as happened in 2010 and 2012; the economy builds steam and they run on it.

An energized Republican base speaks to the first of these points, and the scandals have certainly gotten their attention. The latest polls tell us the D.C. turmoil is thus far resonating with them more than with Americans overall, which probably isn't surprising; it's a narrative of government intrusion that would surely speak to conservatives and tap mistrust of the Administration that already existed. Pew's latest poll finds partisan differences on attention to the coverage, with Republicans paying more than Democrats or independents, and three times more likely to suspect direct administration involvement in the IRS' targeting. We might expect to see this motivate GOP fundraising - especially for anti-tax groups like the tea party.

Looking farther ahead, that could bring an increased chance that the next midterm turnout looks like midterms usually do: a little older, with more white voters, and fewer liberals, which gives a compositional edge to Republicans. Over the last three cycles of presidential and midterm elections, the table shows how midterms have been more favorable to the GOP. This is precisely the kind of makeup Democrats will need to counter.

Voter demographic chart

This is the year candidates start lining up and the 2014 map still has a lot of developing races. Much of what happens next year depends on whether well-funded, potentially strong candidates sign on; whether Republican nomination fights are ultimately unifying or damaging.

Democrats deciding whether to jump in now might have to field questions on how they see the various scandals - talking points some might prefer to leave aside. In GOP contests, watch for whether anger over the scandals becomes a unifying theme among contending nominees who would otherwise have debated guns or cultural stances or immigration, items that find more division in the ranks. There's also the possibility that it ends up a distraction from topics like jobs and the economy, which helped Republicans succeed in 2010, if voters decide the party's nominees aren't addressing those more immediate concerns.

A sampling of the landscape: In Georgia, Democrats are hoping a Republican primary fight will have candidates racing to the right, possibly leaving an opening with the middle in this red state long shot. But Democrats haven't gotten a candidate of their own - there's talk of Michelle Nunn - with strong statewide credentials into the race.

In Kentucky, low poll numbers for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have had Democrats openly wondering about an upset but they don't yet have a clear challenger. (Recall Ashley Judd considered running, and didn't; a former Miss America may and statewide official Allison Grimes is being eyed as a potential contender.)

In South Dakota, an open-seat red state seemingly prime for a Republican pickup, some Democrats wanted to tap retiring Sen. Tim Johnson's son to run and take advantage of name ID, but he hasn't jumped in and the nomination remains unsettled.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Minnesota are still hoping for a major challenge to first-term Sen. Al Franken, and it is worth watching if this emboldens one. South Carolina isn't a battleground but Sen. Lindsay Graham had been the subject of primary chatter, but his strong stands on Benghazi and the IRS issue could unify conservatives and let him avoid that distraction. And we'll see if Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., draw top-tier challenges in states trending more Republican.

Finally, there is the larger narrative to watch over the next year on how this all affects Americans' already-skeptical view of Washington. That could cut both ways, and it doesn't necessarily have to involve scandal per se, but only dissatisfaction with results.

In the last six-year mark for a president, George W. Bush saw his party lose seats and House control in 2006. Early in that cycle, Democrats recruited and funded candidates to run in vulnerable House districts based in large part on unifying opposition to the White House's handling of Iraq.

In 1998, in President Clinton's six-year midterms, Democrats bucked history by doing well, as candidates touted economic themes - the economy was doing well - while Republicans' handling of Clinton's scandals proved unpopular with voters that November.

Some Republican leaders today have already cited 1998 as a cautionary lesson. The recent Washington Post/Capital Insights Poll finds Americans overwhelmingly call the IRS matter inappropriate, but at the same time say Congress isn't currently dealing with things they care about. In both polls, the president's overall approval numbers haven't changed much, in part because of more positive views on the economy.

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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