Leading up to the 2012 elections, Democrats were facing a tall task — they had a president running for reelection whose policies of his first two years had been sharply rebuked in the 2010 midterm elections and then had failed to achieve any further progress in the next two years along with a Senate that had to defend numerous seats in hostile territory. Against this backdrop, Democrats performed spectacularly and Republicans imploded, with the result that Barack Obama won reelection comfortably and Democrats actually gained seats in the Senate and House.
Following that election, I wrote that Republicans needed to moderate in order to be successful in future elections. This message became especially true following the 2013 government shutdown, which the public blamed more on Republicans than President Obama. However, Speaker John Boehner and Republican candidates for Senate smartly corrected their rhetoric and actions without compromising their ideology, and in doing so won a massive victory on November 4th, winning nine seats in the Senate to retake control of that chamber and achieving their largest House majority since the Truman presidency.
It’s important to take a look at how the Republicans won in 2014, since just as commentators overreacted in 2012 in saying that the Republican Party was doomed to the coalition of the ascendant – meaning young voters, minorities, and women – people should not also assume that Republicans are necessarily favored to retake the presidency in 2016 and control all three branches of government.
The first factor to consider is that turnout in midterm elections is much lower than in presidential elections. A presidential election in this era usually turns out about 60% of the eligible population whereas midterm elections are closer to 40%. This drop is particularly apparent among younger people and minorities, to whom Barack Obama had a unique appeal. These voters tend to skew liberal, and so midterm elections generally favor Republicans more than Democrats, although there are certainly exceptions like the 2006 midterms. Moreover, the Senate races this year were in disproportionately Republican states and with a number of vulnerable Democratic incumbents running for reelection in those states, Republican gains were expected by almost everyone.
Secondly, Republicans ran much better candidates than they did in 2012 while Democrats ran poorer candidates in many cases. Following the disastrous showings of Republicans Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in running for the Senate in states that Romney won easily after their comments on abortion, national Republicans made sure to recruit candidates that would not make similar gaffes. When Democrats tried to recreate this War on Women narrative in states like Colorado and Alaska, it backfired on them as many voters perceived the candidates – especially in Colorado – to be running on single-platform campaigns while ignoring the economy and other issues. In the case of Colorado, Senator-elect Cory Gardner (R) smartly twisted this narrative by renouncing his support of personhood measures in the state in favor of over-the-counter sales of the pill. On the other side, Rep. Bruce Braley in Iowa made stupid comments insulting farmers while his opponent Joni Ernst – a tea-party supported conservative – convinced many voters of her authenticity, even winning Braley’s own district and ultimately running away with the seat in a state which Obama won twice.
While the Senate was the focus of election watchers, Republicans made important gains in the House, Governorships, and state legislatures. In the House, Republicans won at least 10 seats (some races are still being counted), with a number of these coming in seats Obama won by double digits in 2012. Even more of these seats ultimately ended up being much closer than expected after Democrats assumed they did not have to worry about these seats. In particular, states like New York, Nevada, Maine, and Maryland were a strong source of Republican strength.
On the gubernatorial side, the shocker was the win of Republican Larry Hogan as the governor of Maryland. Hogan will be only the second Republican to hold the governorship in almost fifty years, and polling was sparse since most people expected the Democrat to win easily. Republicans also won governorships narrowly in blue states like Massachusetts, Maine, and Illinois while cruising to victory in blue states like New Mexico, Nevada, Michigan, and others. In the case of states like Nevada and Ohio, the Republican governor won so convincingly that low Democratic turnout hurt Democrats significantly in downballot races.
And finally, in the oft-ignored state legislatures, Republicans took eleven separate chambers so that they fully control 24 states while Democrats only control 6. Given the huge level of gridlock at the national level, states have become the primary actors in enacting policy changes and so Republican wins at that level will provide significant support for conservative policy changes.
One important factor that will play a role in 2016 at the national level is that Republicans ran a very bland campaign. Their message was very simple: run against President Obama, who has become tremendously unpopular across the country. Obama’s average job rating on Election Day was 42% approve and 53% disapprove. By comparison, those numbers were 46% approve and 49% disapprove on the day of the 2010 elections when Democrats were “shellacked” to use Obama’s words. As a result, Republicans did not need to offer a strong message besides opposing Obama and Obamacare (a still unpopular law). Come Election Day, Democrats in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia who had tried to distance themselves from the president were trounced (in Louisiana’s case, Mary Landrieu faces a runoff election in a few weeks but her chances of winning are slim to none). Meanwhile, in a swing state like Virginia with a strong incumbent in Mark Warner (D), both parties had largely ignored the race and there was little to no advertising but disapproval of Obama almost helped carry Republican Ed Gillespie to a stunning victory – Warner ended up winning by about 16,000 votes.
Now that Republicans control the House and Senate, they will have to move on issues to show the American people that they can be trusted with control of the government ahead of 2016. This agenda will likely include policy proposals that will garner Democrats’ support, such as approving the Keystone XL pipeline (which could possibly occur over Obama’s veto), repealing the medical device tax in Obamacare, and more. Meanwhile, they will likely be stymied on immigration reform, especially after Obama’s audacious executive action that is expected to provide effectively stop deportation of illegal immigrants, and so Republicans will be pressured to come up with some combination of reform and border security to counteract his action. At the same time, presidential candidates for 2016 will start proposing grand policy ideas in the House and Senate. All of these factors will help promote the Republican Party against what should be a decent Democratic year in 2016, with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton looking strong and Republicans needing to defend seats in the Senate in liberal states (these were senators elected in the 2010 wave). If Republicans can show that they can govern responsibly, they can plausibly hold all three branches of government, especially if the economy does not improve much by 2016. At the same time, a strong Democratic year could result in a Democratic presidency and Senate, so Democrats should not despair too much over the results of the 2014 elections. In all, even though Obama is reaching the lame duck phase of his presidency, the next two years should be very important in determining the future political path of the country.
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