Two large cross-currents in American political opinion will be the driving forces in today’s elections: A general dissatisfaction with government and politicians and a specific dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama.
These trends reinforce each other where a Republican candidate is challenging a Democratic incumbent but work against each other where the incumbent is a Republican. Overall, the dissatisfaction with Obama will be a stronger force in national elections, but on the state level incumbents of both parties will go into Tuesday night with trepidation.
Of course, candidates matter and just being not-a-Democrat will not always be enough for the GOP to knock off Democratic senators and congressmen for whom there remains some modest offsetting benefit of incumbency.
The good news for Republicans is that they do seem capable of learning: with a few exceptions such as the very weak Terry Lynn Land in Michigan, the party nominated electable candidates while mostly avoiding disasters like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who harmed the entire Republican message and brand.
So let’s talk about what to look for on Tuesday night as returns trickle in to give a sense of just how large these trends are, not least because their impact will go beyond the next Senate session and into the 2016 presidential campaign, which will feel as if it begins hours after this election ends. This analysis will not be exhaustive; instead my focus will be on elections that I believe are close.
On the East Coast:
In the Midwest:
In the Mountain West:
Way out West:
In this discussion, I’ve left out elections which I believe are “sure things” for the GOP but which are still interesting, such as Senate races in South Dakota, Montana, Kentucky and Arkansas — where rising star Congressman Tom Cotton will unseat Democrat Mark Pryor. I’m also skipping the Texas governor’s race where Democrat Wendy Davis, never likely to win, has utterly imploded with a series of strangely amusing unforced errors, and the Virginia Senate race where Ed Gillespie will lose by a wide margin to incumbent Democrat Mark Warner.
By the end of the evening, we should know that Republicans have gained seats in Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and Arkansas, enough to give them the Senate majority assuming they have held Kansas. Later in the night we’ll learn that the GOP has taken Alaska (but I won’t be awake for that.) If Georgia doesn’t go Republican by a wide enough majority to avoid a runoff, the GOP will still be looking at likely gains in Louisiana and Georgia in December and January, respectively. And there’s a real chance that New Hampshire or North Carolina will early in the evening end Democratic hopes for retaining a majority. In short, despite the brave or ridiculous predictions of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Biden, and Josh Earnest (speaking for President Obama), I predict that by Tuesday night and no later than Wednesday morning, we will know — even without Georgia and Louisiana — that in January Mitch McConnell will be the new Majority Leader of the United States Senate.
What lessons will be learned from Tuesday’s results?
Perhaps the two best GOP candidates in critical and close races are Joni Ernst, running against Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley (not “Bruce Bailey,” as Michelle Obama named him) to fill the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Democrat Tom Harkin, and Cory Gardner who is aiming to unseat incumbent Democrat Mark “Uterus” Udall in Colorado. (Mistake-prone Michelle Obama called Udall a “fifth-generation Coloradan” when that moniker actually applies to Gardner; Udall was born in Arizona, though his family has long ties to Colorado.)
What makes these candidates, along with former Army Ranger and Bronze Star recipient Tom Cotton, a breath of fresh air and likely to win races in which Democrats would have been expected to have an advantage? They push against the dominant public view of the GOP as the party of old, angry white men. Ernst and Gardner are both upbeat, young (Ernst is 44, Gardner is 40, Cotton is 37), and approach the campaign with big ideas and bigger smiles. They also can relate to a wide range of people due to backgrounds that mix farming (particularly important in Iowa) with military service (Cotton and Ernst) and a reputation for valuing problem-solving over partisanship (Gardner). The snotty elitists at the N.Y. Times sneer at the “bumpkinification” of politics. They still live in the world of fellow New Yorker (although a transplant from San Francisco) Pauline Kael. But voters will have the last word and they like people they can relate to.
In Gardner’s case, he has achieved the remarkable result of making the “nice guy” Udall look like the angry old white man in the race, completely turning the table on one of the Democrats’ few persistent electoral advantages, especially among young voters, independents, and women, which is why Udall’s previous edge among those groups has evaporated.
Gardner and Ernst (even if they don’t win) and Cotton show the way forward for Republicans. Tone down social issues in purple states. Have a strong and likeable personality in any state. Stand for something. Offer solutions. Smile.
Liberals are already making excuses: “Republicans should have put this election away a long time ago” (heard on CNN) and “As far as legislation, it really doesn’t matter if the GOP controls the Senate” (heard, or at least something like it, on Fox).
But this election has the potential to end with a more powerful Republican wave than current polls suggest. Those polls assume a particular makeup of the electorate, i.e. what percentage of young, Hispanic, and female voters — whom Democrats need to survive — will actually turn out to vote. Recent surveys suggest each of those groups being unmotivated by this election for a variety of reasons.
That lack of motivation goes directly to the Democrats’ poor — incredibly poor given their recent history — messaging during this campaign season, focusing on birth control and abortion in what George Will (speaking of Mark Udall’s campaign in particular) called “a relentlessly gynecological campaign” and sprinkling in some repulsive race-baiting, while leaving discussion of more pressing issues to Republicans.
The effect of this fixation on women’s reproductive bits (including in one of the most ridiculous campaign ads of the year) has women wondering if (or realizing that) they’re being taken for granted by Democrats, if not treated as idiots. For this reason, the most recent national AP poll shows that women prefer Republicans over Democrats by two percentage points to control Congress. That stunning result combined with a new Harvard study showing young voters — including young Hispanics — are willing to consider voting Republican shows just how much damage the Obama administration has done to the Democratic Party’s base in much the same way that George Bush and the Republican Congress of a decade ago tarnished the GOP brand — a brand that likely presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) says is still “broken.” Thanks to Obama, it’s just not as cool to be a liberal these days.
Similarly, it remains to be seen whether reprehensible race-baiting benefits Democrats by turning out black voters in large enough numbers to alter the outcome of close races or whether it backfires by turning moderate whites against candidates who would resort to such desperate, divisive, and unsavory tactics.
Both the birth control obsession and the racist pandering by Democrats point to their inability (or at least unwillingness) to even try to justify their support for liberal policies generally and the Obama administration specifically. Almost no Democratic candidate for national office has offered kind words for Obamacare. Michelle Nunn dodged the question of whether she would have voted for it (in much the same way that Kentucky’s Democratic soon-to-be-loser Alison Grimes refused to say whether she voted for Obama).
Bill Clinton’s campaign guru James Carville is famous for creating the mantra “The economy, stupid” for his boss. It worked. Most Democrats running for Congress have either avoided talking about the economy for fear of it tying them too closely to Barack Obama or have led with issues such as increasing the minimum wage or “pay equity,” the former quite popular with most of the public despite being terrible (and unconstitutional) policy. Yet they still find themselves unable to gain traction as the public worries about bloody headlines from Syria and Sierra Leone and a president more interested in playing golf than in doing his job.
The task for Republicans after taking the Senate majority will be to force President Obama to do his job, or at least force the public to recognize that he, not Republicans, is the true source of political obstruction. Some pundits wonder aloud whether Barack Obama will, like Bill Clinton after the 1994 midterms, look to compromise and pass important legislation. The answer is a resounding no, at least if the legislation would require him to give an inch on his Progressive agenda of soaking the rich to pay for increased government dependency by everyone else. Barack Obama is an Alinskyite narcissist, both traits that prevent compromise or the intrusion of reality into his thought process. My prediction: The new Republican Senate will pass, with some Democratic support, a bill to begin construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; Obama’s first faceoff with the next Senate will therefore be on an issue where the Senate knows it has the public (and several labor unions) behind it.
Obama will play his political games but will inevitably, despite attempted protection by the media, further damage what little reputation he has remaining outside of his leftist base. Thinking ahead, this means that Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president, will have to campaign against Barack Obama’s legacy, style, and even policies — a very difficult position for a Democrat to be in.
In 2015, Republicans will have to mostly sideline Ted Cruz’s aggressive (and self-serving) desires — though they should vote to repeal Obamacare and hold hearings on the worst abuses and failures of the Obama administration, including Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservatives, and perhaps Fast and Furious.
Future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must work with Speaker of the House John Boehner to pass legislation on issues of importance to the public (including tax reform and particularly immigration reform, which the public broadly supports despite the loud cries from various nativists and the economically ignorant), to send those bills to the president’s desk, and to take credit for governing whether Obama signs the bills or not.
Tuesday’s election will be a negative referendum on the Obama administration; the extent of Democrat losses may be tempered only by the damage Republicans have done to themselves over the past decade and the festering dissatisfaction among Americans about government overall. However, the upcoming Republican majority in both houses of Congress is the GOP’s best opportunity since the election of Ronald Reagan to show the country and the world that it is much more than the “Party of No” or of social issues “extremists” and that it is worthy of winning the presidency in 2016.