Like 2010, the 2014 midterms were another election disaster for the Democrats. When all the election results are complete, the Republicans will have gained a total of 9 Senate seats. This will give them 54 seats to 44 for the Democrats plus the two independents that caucus with them.
On the House side, Republicans will have won a net of 13 seats giving them 247 to 188 for the Democrats. This will give the Republicans their biggest majority in the House since 1928.
The Republicans won a net of only two new governorships, but very conservative and Tea Party backed governors won reelection in several states. Rick Scott was reelected in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine, Rich Snyder in Michigan, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Republicans also prevailed in the governor’s race in three blue states: Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois. The only Republican loss for governor was in Alaska where an independent candidate won.
Republicans also gained more than 300 new seats in state legislatures in 2014.
The Republicans won the Senate races in every single red state that voted for Romney in 2012 but also in Iowa and Colorado that voted for Obama in 2012 and in North Carolina that voted for him in 2008.
Incumbent Democratic Senators will have lost in Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In four other states, retiring Democrats will be replaced by Republicans: Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Iowa.
Every single member for the House Tea Party Caucus who ran in 2014 was reelected. Seven did not run. Three retired and four left their seats to run for the Senate. However, ten new Tea Party types won election in the House. Therefore, the total number of Tea Party people in the House increased by three giving them the same percentage of the Republican caucus that they had in the last Congress of about 21%.
If, like myself, you happen to be someone who favors a progressive government focused on dealing with the complex issues that we face in the 21st century such as climate change, immigration, affordable health care, campaign finance reform, and regulation of financial institutions, the midterms might seem to be the beginning of a political dark age where the plutocrats and their allies in the Republican Party are going to dominate for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, in addition to having the members to make a move to roll back the significant legislation that the Democrats were able to pass in the last six years, they would seem to have momentum going into the 2016 presidential campaign. Having won control of both houses of Congress, they will now go all out to win the presidency as well.
The new Congress will have Jim Inhoff, the arch climate change denier, as head of the Environment and Public Works Committee and Ted Cruz as head of the Senate subcommittee that oversees scientific funding.
To some extent this dark outlook for the Democrats is justified. It’s very unlikely that even a big Democratic wave in 2016 will win back the House. The Republicans control of state legislatures in the 2010 elections coincided with the ten year census, and so they were able to gerrymander many House districts creating safe Republican seats.
Redistricting won’t happen again until 2020 and the Democrats have a lot of ground to make up in state legislatures between now and then to be able to reverse the Republican gerrymandering advantage.
The nine new Republican Senators who were elected in 2014 to replace Democrats are not likely to be voted out of office any time soon. Six are from red states and all will have the advantage of incumbency in the next election.
When we look at the big picture, however, the Democrats are actually now positioned to have a big comeback in 2016 in both the Senate and the presidential race.
Had the Democrats hung onto Senate control in 2014, this would have created more of an opening for Republicans to win the presidency in 2016. Just as the American voter does not like to see one party dominate too much and hence tends to vote for the party out of power in midterm elections, the same psychology applies to the presidential race after one party has had two terms.
Only in two elections in the last 66 years has a party been able win two terms and then elect their person in the next election. Harry Truman won in 1948 after Roosevelt had had four terms and George H.W. Bush won after Reagan’s two terms in 1988.
But the Republicans are now the governing party and so voter discontent can focus on them as the group who are not alleviating the sense that things are going in the wrong direction and that nothing is getting done in Congress.
The 2014 election was not a validation for a substantive Republican agenda for the future, nor was it a reflection of a basic change of opinion in the Republican brand in general. Just prior to the election a national poll showed the Democrats had a 42% favorable and 52% percent unfavorable rating. The Republicans on the other hand were at 38% favorable and 54% unfavorable. The current numbers are at about 40/48 for the Democrats and 37/52 for the Republicans in favorable and unfavorable ratings.
Moreover, on several ballot issues, voters favored the Democratic agenda. A ballot measure for universal background checks on firearm purchases was approved in Washington State. Personhood amendments were voted down in Colorado and North Dakota. Voters raised the minimum wage in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Recreational use of marijuana was approved in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.
Two governors who advocated gun control measures were reelected: John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Dan Malloy in Connecticut.
Two progun state senators in Colorado who were voted into office in 2013 in a recall election to protest gun control legislation lost their seats to Democrats.
In 2016, 24 Republican seats are up for reelection versus only 10 Democratic seats. Moreover, Republicans will have to run in seven states which Obama carried in 2014: Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The Democrats who had to run for reelection in 2014 had the advantage of a presidential election turnout in 2008 that was about 60%. Just over 36% voted in 2014. We can expect a similar Democratic Party favorable uptick in turnout in 2016 of at least 20%.
After their own election fiasco in 2012, Republicans vowed to become a more inclusive party and reach out to Hispanics and other minorities, younger people, and women voters. However, in the intervening years before the midterms, there was never any substantial change in their message or focus.
Consistent with their actions in the Congress, the Republicans didn’t campaign on any positive agenda. Their via negativa was about stopping Obama and his policies. They also played on security fears and claimed that Obama was not doing enough to protect us from Ebola and ISIS.
You would think that with control of both houses of Congress, the Republicans would now be in a position to put forwards bills that would define their solutions to our nation’s challenges and thus to have specific and substantive policies to put forward in the 2016 presidential campaign.
My reading is that this is not what we’re going to see over the next two years for the most part. I don’t see the Republicans morphing on the whole from obstructionists into problem solvers.
Part of the reason for this is the continuing influence of the Tea Party. Although the party establishment was able to rein in the excesses of the Tea Party and prevent them from nominating candidates who were too extreme to win the general election in the 2014 midterms, the Tea Party is still a strong force in the House with about 50 to 60 members.
When they vote at a bloc, they can prevent Speaker of the House Boehner from passing anything with just Republican votes.
In the Senate there will be more Tea Party types that before: Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, Cory Gardner, and Bill Cassidy. They toned down their rhetoric for the general election and avoided saying as little as possible about the social conservative views they hold. Yet, they are fellow travelers with the Waco Bird Caucus of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee.
The Republican establishment was able to fend off Tea Party challenges for every one of the Senate races in the primaries where a Republican incumbent was running. The Tea Party was only able to defeat two Republican incumbents in the House races. John Ratcliff replaced 91 year-old Ralph Hall in Texas and Dave Brat defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia.
It might seem then that the Tea Party influence is on the wane in the Republican Party. Republican congressmen will not have the same concern about a primary challenge in their party going forward as they have had in previous elections.
You would think this would embolden them to moderate some of their positions and move away from no compromise strategies like shutting down the government or refusing to raise the national debt limit. The Republican leaders in the House and Senate have in fact promised to avoid these two moves in the 114th Congress.
But the Republican Party in Congress is currently a coalition of people of different ideological inclinations. The spectrum runs from responsible legislators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain to right wing extremists like Louie Gohmert, Steven King, and Ted Cruz.
Some of the most extreme Republicans from the last Congress are not going to be there in 2015. These include Paul Broun, Michele Bachmann, and Steve Stockman. However, the new crop of House Republicans includes more ideological purist types: Dave Brat, Tom Emmer, Mia Love, Glenn Grothman, and Ken Buck.
I fully expect Joni Ernst to replace Michele Bachmann as the most outrageous female Republican congressperson.
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are going to have to make some moves to appease the most extreme elements of their party in the coming Congress in order to maintain the fiction of a unified Republican caucus.
We’re already seen this happen in the last Congress with the shutdown of the government over attempts to destroy Obamacare and taking the country to the brink of default on the national debt. Boehner pursued a lawsuit against Obama that was destined to go nowhere as a way of trying to preempt the calls for impeachment of the president.
The most extreme right wing of the Republican Party has effective veto power over whatever the more reasonable people in their caucus try to do.
So I don’t see the Republican led Congress in 2015 being an opening for getting things done in Congress on any substantive basis beyond a couple of trade bills and an infrastructure bill. It’s going to be Congress versus the President in a test of wills. The dysfunction of Congress is going to get worse.
When we look at the deep story of what happened in the 2014 midterms, we can begin to see the dynamics that are at work leading us to a 114th Congress that will go down in infamy as the worst and least productive of all time.
The Republicans managed to add 13 House seats and sweep every contested Senate election except for New Hampshire in spite of being less favorably perceived than Democrats as a whole. However, this is what the majority of people in the United State think and the majority did not vote. Only about 36% did. This was the lowest turnout in a national election since 1942.
When we look at who actually voted, the voters that usually trend Democrat were down in numbers from 2012. Black, Hispanics, people under 30, and single women did not turn out in the numbers they did in 2012.
65% of the midterm electorate were 45 and older and only 13% were 18 to 29 years of age. It was an older, whiter electorate.
Although there are slightly more people who identify as Democrats than there are Republicans in the country as a whole, there are more highly partisan and ideological conservative voters than liberal ones. The most partisan people are the ones who turn out in disproportionate numbers in low turnout elections.
Nonpartisan independent voters make up the biggest voting bloc in every election and they trended Republican especially in the last few days leading up to the election.
The Democrats did not succeed is energizing their base for the midterms. They were handicapped in this respect to some extent because President Obama was considered a liability in several of the contested Senate races so he was not invited in to spark the Democratic base.
My reading is that the independents went for the Republicans in significant numbers in part because of some underlying belief that Republicans in control of both chambers of the Congress could break the deadlock and get some things done. Caught up as it was in deplorable dysfunction, something different needed to happen rather than a continuation of the status quo.
The Ebola crisis and the emergence of the ISIS threat also helped the Republicans in the last months before the election. People foolishly believe that Republicans are better at keeping them safe in insecure times than Democratic leaders.
Two-thirds of the public felt that the country is moving in the wrong direction and three-fourths said that they didn’t believe their children would have a better life than what they presently enjoyed. So there was a mood of overall discontent and economic pessimism.
Going into the election, only one-third of voters felt that the economy is getting better. On any gross national measure, this belief is absurd. Considered where the economy was in 2009 when Obama became president, we’ve seen an unprecedented economic turnaround. In the last months of 2014, there is no inflation, interest rates are very low, unemployment is under 6%, gas prices have crashed, the deficit is shrinking at a rapid rate, the stock market is at record highs, corporate profits are booming, 200,000 jobs are being added per month, and the GNP was at 4 percent for the last quarter.
These economic facts, however, do not translate into voter motivation to support Democrats. To some extent, the issue is misinformation. People don’t know that the deficit has declined at a rapid rate in Obama’s six years, for example.
Moreover, Republicans have an advantage in people’s perceptions of which party is going to help the economy based in the brand identification of Republicans with business issues.
Although the majority of people feel that the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthy, they still persist in believing that the Republicans are more likely to benefit them as individuals in the middle class and below.
The perception that the economy is not improving is sourced in the economic frustration of the middle class. Middle and lower income people have not seen much improvement in their economic bottom line even when the economy as a whole is making great strides and the wealthiest are making out like bandits.
People are losing hope in the American dream of being able to dramatically improve their economic circumstances through hard work and wise investment.
Since the Democrats had the White House and the Senate, they are seen as the governing party and hence as responsible for the economic stagnation of the middle class.
My reading is that the Republicans are going to drive their new election band wagon off the cliff with legislative efforts which favor the wealthy and multinational corporations but that do little for the average working individual.
This is the big opening for Democrats to seize the moment and advocate for populist policies that support the middle class.
There is a lot more to the deeper story of why the midterms turned out as they did and what we can expect going forward as the political and economic institutions of our nation go through unprecedented and sometimes chaotic transformation. This will be Part II of this thread.