Job growth strengthens: Could good news help Democrats hold Senate?

In June, the national unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent. That's good news for Democrats hoping to maintain control of the Senate, but there are caveats.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas can tout Arkansas' low unemployment rate during events like last month's Pink Tomato Festival parade in Warren, Ark. But voters don't always reward incumbents for an improving economy during midterm elections.

The news that the US economy added a healthy 288,000 jobs in June and the unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent should be good news for Democrats trying to hold on to the Senate, right?

That's because, rightly or wrongly, the party that controls the White House generally gets some credit or blame from voters for how the economy is doing.

So a falling unemployment rate could help – especially since the job market looks better than the national average (or at least not much worse) in several states with key tossup Senate races.

But, historically, falling economies have hurt parties that control the White House more than improving economies have helped them. Moreover, other factors such as scandals or conflict can often hold more sway.

Americans are still concerned enough to list the economy as their top national priority – as they have through President Obama’s entire tenure. So there is an opportunity to signal progress. But weaving the theme of economic progress into campaign messaging will have to be done with care.

That was evident Thursday in the White House’s response to the monthly jobs report. The yin and yang aren’t hard to spot.

“This is the first time … we have seen total job growth above 200,000 for five straight months” since back in early 2000, said Jason Furman, who heads the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. “While today’s jobs report is encouraging, many families are still struggling with long-term unemployment and wages that have been stagnant for decades.”

Expect more of that approach – pointing to positive economic news while also hitting the “we have a long way to go” note – from Democrats nationwide between now and November.

Of the eight Senate races listed as tossups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, three are in states with unemployment rates well above the national average as of May (state jobless rates as of June aren’t available yet). They are Georgia (7.2 percent), Kentucky (7.7 percent), and Michigan (7.5 percent); the national unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in May.

Two of those (Georgia and Michigan) are open seats. In Kentucky, incumbent Mitch McConnell (R) will try to use the theme of a still-weak economy to argue that Obama and Democrats have been failing to energize the economy, more than five years after the recession’s official end.

The flip-side examples are important, too, though.

In states hosting the other five tossup Senate races, the job market looks more positive. The unemployment rates in Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina were all about 6.4 percent in May, while Colorado and Louisiana had jobless rates of 5.8 percent or lower.

An economy-centered campaign message might help Democrats affect “a few critical Senate race outcomes,” wrote Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, in Politico this spring.

But he argued that, historically, the economy’s performance doesn’t have a strong correlation with midterm results.

And it’s worth noting that Americans generally don’t see the current economy as “back to normal.”

The official unemployment rate doesn’t capture the whole story of the current job market – in which more than 3 million people are “long-term” jobless (looking for more than six months) and many others have stopped looking due to discouragement.

In polls, sentiment about the economy has been growing at least marginally more positive.

In the June Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, for example, more Americans say the nation is not in a recession (49 percent) than in one (45 percent). Back in the spring of 2013, nearly 6 in 10 saw the US as in recession.

But the poll suggests that voters aren't giving Obama much credit for the economic gains, meaning they could still be prone to blame his party at the voting booth in November. More Americans see his handling of the economy as “unacceptable” (27 percent) or “poor” (17 percent) than as “good” (24 percent) or “excellent” (10 percent).

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