Republicans can be forgiven for crowing about their election wins this month. It’s a glorious feeling to control Congress, even though control means limited power when the White House is in a different party’s hands. No question about it. They did great. They gained eight seats in the Senate, and are likely to gain a ninth after the Louisiana runoff election. They gained twelve seats in the House as well, for a total of 244 out of 435 seats, or 56% of seats, their largest majority since the Eisenhower era. Republicans picked up two governorships, including in surprising states like Massachusetts and Maryland. Republicans also won seven more state chambers, giving them control of the most state legislatures since the start of the Great Depression.
While Republicans did great, they also failed. Their failure was that they did not convince new voters to vote Republican. What they have done is tighten their grip on the states they do control. This was a result of several factors, and includes disinterested voters, energized Republicans and their extreme gerrymandering, plus not a little voter suppression. In short, they stacked their own decks. The South is now a greater shade of red that ever before, but there is little evidence that the color has leached into other states. While governorships in two blue states went their way, there is no evidence that they have changed the tendencies of Massachusetts and Maryland voters to vote for Democrats. These new governors will continue to govern with legislatures controlled by Democrats.
Mainly Republicans were elected because the Democrats put up poor candidates. In Maryland, voters had to choose between their lieutenant governor who really had no accomplishments, but one debacle: overseeing the disastrous rollout of Maryland’s health care exchange. In Massachusetts, Martha Coakley ran a dispirited campaign reminiscent of her loss to Scott Brown some years earlier. Democrats in general ran lousy campaigns this cycle, running away from President Obama’s generally solid accomplishments while offering little in the way of solid accomplishments of their own. It’s no wonder that only 38% of eligible voters voted, a record low turnout. The rest stayed home because there was little to go to the polls for.
After such losses, only stupid Democrats would rest on their laurels. My senator, Mark Warner, came within a percentage point of being an ex-senator. Still, as I mentioned before, generational demographics are becoming inexorable. This is no more obvious that in the 2016 electoral map. Solid and likely Democratic states in presidential votes add up to 257 electoral votes, while Republicans have only 149 electoral votes. 270 are needed to win. Republicans are unlikely to nominate a moderate that might give them a chance at winning. Democrats would have to nominate someone that turns off their base not to lock in their 257 electoral votes. With Hillary Clinton the presumed Democratic nominee, all she has to do is run a conventional campaign that stays on message and she is likely to be our next president.
Republicans picked up so many senate seats in 2014 because they had an almost ideal hand. Democrats had to defend 13 seats in red or purple states. Six seats were needed and Republicans got what looks like 9 of them. In 2016, it’s payback time. Republicans have to defend 24 seats, and 18 of those seats look very competitive. Since Democrats come out to vote in presidential years, it’s likely that Mitch McConnell’s tenure as majority leader will be short lived. The odds that Democrats will recapture the Senate in 2016 are probably greater than 80 percent, despite Republicans impressive Senate wins in 2014.
Republicans can expect to continue to do well in statewide races in 2016, but there are still plenty of warning signs in the decade to come. North Carolina is reliably purple, at least in presidential and senate races, and Georgia’s demographics are swinging this way as well. Even Texas looks vulnerable, and its gerrymandering and disengaged Democrats have kept Republicans’ luck from slipping. At least on the federal level, Republicans look like they may have peaked. Control of the House will continue for sometime, but that is primarily a factor of their heavily gerrymandered states.
One sign that Republicans are not connecting with voters is to see how various propositions fared. A proposition to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas of all places passed handily. The NRA suffered a defeat when Washington State voters passed a background checks bill. Medical marijuana initiatives passed pretty much everywhere. About the only part of the conservative message that resonates with voters are taxes. Marylanders voted in a Republican governor because Democrats passed one tax too many. All that other stuff that Republicans care about, voters overall mostly don’t like. This includes their opposition to gay marriage, an aggressive foreign policy, hostility toward immigration reform, their obvious racism and their contempt for solutions to global warming. In addition in solid blue states, Democrats retained all their seats. They added to their majorities in states like Oregon and California. Jerry Brown was easily reelected governor in California.
A wise Republican strategist would look at these 2014 results and realize they are fundamentally false and a result of a stacked deck. Yes, they won and won impressively, but overall their message did not connect. Voters who bothered to vote voted mostly against the status quo. They can pat themselves on the back for an impressive voter turnout campaign and for maximizing voter suppression efforts. However, these are firewall strategies. They do not change the fundamental dynamics that are underway in this country. Republicans can’t win nationally solely on their solid red bases in the south and middle of the country. And it’s likely their voter suppression tactics won’t work much longer. They need to offer a compelling message to the middle, and they have none other than perhaps limited government. That message may sell. Unfortunately, Republicans are selling austere government, where voters want limited government.
They do have two years to demonstrate that they can govern, but there is little sign that they will do anything differently than they did the last six years. Obstruction is not governance, and while it worked for them in 2014 it is likely to work against them in 2016.
As they say, what goes around comes around.