An angry electorate on Tuesday rewrote the script for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, punishing his party on every level at polls across the country, installing a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, and increasing the GOP’s dominance of the House of Representatives. Obama, who has been able to count on at least one if not two friendly majorities in the House and Senate since taking office in 2009, will now spend the final two years of his term facing off with a Republican-dominated Congress whose members can make a strong argument that voters have handed them a mandate to change the way Washington operates.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who won reelection handily and is expected to become the Senate Majority Leader when the 114th Congress convenes in January, said in his acceptance speech, “Tomorrow the papers will say I won this race. But the truth is tonight we begin another one. One that is far more important than mine. That’s the race to turn this country around, to restore hope and confidence and optimism in this commonwealth and across this nation of ours.”
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If a “wave” election is one in which otherwise vulnerable candidates are swept to victory by general momentum rather than on their individual appeal to voters, the 2014 midterms can only be classified as a wave. To be sure, the Democrats on Tuesday faced a “bad map” – meaning that they had to defend far more vulnerable seats than the Republicans did. But as a general rule, from the Senate to the House to the Governors mansions, even if a race was deemed a toss-up heading into the night, with few exceptions, it went to the Republicans.
The GOP flipped seven seats in the Senate outright last night, taking ostensible toss-up races in Kansas, Iowa, Georgia and Colorado by comfortable margins. Republicans are currently favored to win two more, as early numbers in Alaska point to Republican Dan Sullivan over incumbent Democrat Mark Begich, while Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was forced into a December runoff with Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) in which the Republican is the favorite.
Most surprisingly, the outcome of the Virginia senate race still remains in doubt. Incumbent Democrat Mark Warner, a popular former governor, was expected to cruise to victory Tuesday. Instead, he leads by fewer than 17,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast, a result that leaves his Republican challenger Ed Gillespie well within his rights to demand a recount.
Republican gains in the House were less impressive, if only because the GOP already controlled the chamber and the number of competitive House races was relatively small. However, as in the Senate races, toss-ups broke largely in favor of Republicans Tuesday night. With a number of races still being tallied, the GOP could pad its margin in the House by as many as a dozen or more seats.
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The GOP wave was most beneficial to a crop of Republican governors whom many analysts had expected to be shown the door last night. Sam Brownback in Kansas, Paul LePage in Maine, Rick Scott in Florida, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin all held their jobs despite strong challenges. In Illinois, incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn was ousted by Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, and in the Democratic strongholds of Maryland and Massachusetts, Republicans won open seats.
Tuesday’s carnage will lead inevitably to a round of recrimination and soul-searching within the national Democratic Party, much of it well warranted. President Obama is also scheduled to hold a press conference today to discuss the outcome of the election.
It’s a truism to say that election results are all about turnout, but it’s never been truer than it was for Democrats Tuesday night. For weeks beforehand, public opinion polling consistently showed that more registered voters preferred a Congress controlled by Democrats than by Republicans. However, among a large percentage of those voters, the preference wasn’t strong enough to drive them to the polls. When the same pollsters reduced their samples to voters who were likely to go to the ballot box on Tuesday, the results usually flipped, showing a preference for Republican control.
The Democrats’ turnout problem, of course, is difficult to disentangle from President Obama’s unpopularity. Obama’s historic run for the presidency produced high voter turnout in 2008, and his re-election race, while not as much of a motivator, still had nearly 60 percent participation. But the president has seen his popularity with the electorate slide to the point that most Democratic candidates didn’t want to be seen on the stump with him or to associate themselves with his policies – even in cases where the policies were arguably successful.
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This put the Democrats in a bind. It’s difficult to motivate an electorate without having a good story to tell, and by running away from everything to do with the Obama administration, they left themselves with little on which to build a narrative of progress.
The apotheosis of the Democrats’ problem was evident in the campaign of Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell’s challenger in Kentucky. Her concern about being associated with Obama was so crippling that she put herself in the ridiculous position of refusing to say whether she had voted for him in the last presidential election.
Had they chosen instead to stand and fight, Democrats could have pulled together a number of positive storylines. Would they have encountered Republican pushback? Of course. But Tuesday’s results suggest that it’s a better strategy to be for something and continue selling it in the face of criticism than to simply run from an opponent’s attacks.
While the Affordable Care Act had its problems in the rollout phase and continues to have its strong detractors because of higher insurance prices among other issues, tens of millions more Americans are now covered by health insurance than before. Still more tens of millions more might be covered right now if not for Republican governors and state legislatures’ refusal to accept the law’s Medicaid expansion.
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At the six-year mark of his presidency, Obama’s administration has presided over the creation of more jobs than his predecessor’s administration saw in eight years, and job growth is on pace to make the difference even more stark over the next two years. As bad as the financial crisis and Great Recession were, the U.S. economy weathered it better than any other major industrialized country, and has also recovered faster.
Even the response to the Ebola virus, which had Republican candidates predicting catastrophe just a few weeks ago, has been a significant public health triumph to date. Only two people in the U.S. have contracted the disease, both as the result of initial protocol failures at a hospital in Texas and both have recovered. Despite the howling for flight bans and quarantines, the administration largely stuck to the recommendations of public health professionals; so far, they’ve been proved right.
All of these are positive stories, and all were unusable on the campaign trail because they would have tied Democratic candidates to Obama.
Democratic leaders also made some strategic and tactical mistakes.
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In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, knowing that his caucus faced a very bad map in 2014, spent a lot of time and energy protecting his fellow Democrats from taking difficult votes in the 12-to-18 months prior to the election. The 113th Congress will go down in history as one of the least productive in history and some of that reputation (though by no means all) can be laid at Reid’s feet.
Reid essentially blocked all Republican amendments to legislation, many of which were expressly designed to highlight the differences between the parties or, in some cases, to just embarrass Democrats. While that meant Democrats didn’t have to take as many painful votes as McConnell might have liked, it also meant they didn’t vote on a whole lot of substantial issues, either.
The result was that Democratic senators took to the campaign trail without a lot to show for the past couple of years in Washington. With few accomplishments to tout, they instead found themselves playing defense against Republicans accusing them of being surrogates of an unpopular president.
For his part, President Obama made a tactical decision about immigration reform that may haunt him for the rest of his term. He faced a Republican House that refused to take action on comprehensive immigration reform and Republican candidates for Congress willing to treat virtually any executive action on the issue as the basis of a constitutional crisis. At the same time, a large percentage of the Democratic base – Latinos in particular – expected action from the White House.
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Over the summer, after it became obvious no immigration legislation would make it out of Congress, the White House made clear the president was planning to take executive action to reduce deportation and otherwise ease the situation of the undocumented. However, he wouldn’t do anything until after the midterms.
The result appears to have been the opposite of what the White House must have been hoping for. Announcing his intention to take action on immigration infuriated the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party almost as much as actually taking action would have, giving Republican candidates another talking point. At the same time, the transparently political nature of the decision to wait until after the election angered Latino voters, who, late polls showed, were less enthusiastic in their support for Democratic candidates Tuesday than they have been in the past.
In a move reminiscent of 2010, when the previous Republican wave flipped the House to the GOP’s control, President Obama has asked congressional leaders to come to the White House Friday for a bipartisan discussion of how to move forward.
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In November 2010, after the Republicans won the majority that would give them control of the House in 2013, Obama summoned congressional leaders to a summit at the White House. In the first sign of things to come, incoming House Speaker John Boehner initially refused the invitation.
In his remarks last night, McConnell signaled a more magnanimous tone than Boehner struck in November 2010 – but heading into the last two years of his presidency, courtesy may be the best Obama can hope for from Capitol Hill.
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