Staying up late to watch the results come in from America’s mid-term election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers some initial observations as control over the Senate switches from Democratic hands to their opponents, the Republicans. The results, of course, offer potential insights over the 2016 presidential election, in addition to governance in the last two years of the Obama administration.
As the American public trooped to the polls, it has become increasingly clear through the night that control over the Senate has been slipping from the grasp of the Democratic Party to their opponents. Crucial Senate seats won by Democrats in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential landslide have flipped to Republicans, and by early morning South Africa time, the Republicans were poised to win at least 51 of 100 Senate seats – and perhaps even more.
Even if Democratic candidates ultimately hold on for their candidate, Senator Mary Landrieu, to participate in a run-off election in Louisiana (a state with the 50% victory rule in place and an independent libertarian/Tea Party candidate taking a crucial share of votes), it is increasingly clear their opponents will clear the threshold to select Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. McConnell won his own re-election race handily as well, after his challenger, Alison Grimes, gave him a scare in the early campaigning. That, in turn, means the president’s opponents will control both houses of the US Congress and will, therefore, increasingly be setting the legislative and policy agenda for the president’s final two years in office.
Within the larger Republican trend, a significant number of Senate races have seen surprising outcomes. In Colorado, Democrat Mark Udall is being beaten by Cory Gardner, although in Virginia, incumbent Senator Mark Warner, a presumed big favourite, may be on course to just slide past challenger Ed Gillespie. In Georgia, meanwhile, Michelle Nunn (the daughter of long-time Democratic Senator Sam Nunn) lost to businessman David Perdue (although the seat did not change party affiliation since it was previously held by a Republican.) Meanwhile, in Kansas, Republican Pat Roberts, the long-time incumbent, is on course to beat independent (but Republican-leaning) Greg Orman after a significant scare for the Republican stalwart. And in Iowa, Democratic candidate Bruce Braley is poised to lose to Republican Joni Ernst despite much effort by the Obama White House to secure that election (Iowa had been seen as increasingly Democratic territory on the basis of recent presidential elections). In other states such as North Carolina, Democratic Senator Kay Hagan may just barely hang on to beat challenger Thom Tillis, but was still too close to call at this point.
While the Senate has one hundred members, two per state, it is elected in a staggered fashion with one-third of the total elected every two years. As the nation’s more deliberative body, it is argued that this tri-parte electoral schedule was designed so that the composition of the Senate reflected the public opinion of “today, two years ago and two years prior to that.” By comparison, all 435 members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years and the Republican Party is thoroughly on course to keep – and add to – its margin of control.
In gubernatorial elections, Republicans are making some important pickups as well, pre-eminently with their increasingly certain win in Wisconsin with incumbent Scott Walker beating Mary Burke (boosting Walker’s visibility as a possible Republican presidential candidate), as well as in Florida, Connecticut and Maryland. In Florida, incumbent governor, Rick Scott, has squeaked past challenger Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor there who had switched parties to run for office again. Coupled with likely wins by Republican majorities in many state legislatures, Republicans will have the authority to carry out any redistricting that must be done for congressional seats – a significant plus for improving Republican-leaning districts for the House of Representatives.
Many Democratic candidates eschewed any close embrace by President Obama during their campaigns – with some of them even refusing to say whether they had voted for Obama in the 2012 presidential election. This was recognition of the president’s increasingly low standing in public regard as a leader in charge of the national agenda. Paralleling this critique, attitude polling data has been consistent for months that a significant majority of Americans have felt the country was headed on the wrong course. While it is hard to translate that into policy specifics, this was reflected in a significantly anti-incumbent flavour to voting more generally. In the case of this election, with more vulnerable Democratic Senate seats on the ballot than Republican, the result, predictably, has been a growing tide of rejections for Democratic candidates in states where voter loyalties are divided.
Going forward, what does this mean for the last two years of the second Obama administration, and naturally enough, for the 2016 election – a poll where the next president will be selected? For one thing, it will require the president to take even more cognizance of Republican proposals legislatively, even though he retains the ultimate weapon of a presidential veto of anything that smacks of a repudiation of signature Obama administration achievements such as Obamacare. On the other hand, Republicans now have a potentially dangerous set of choices. As one commentator, Jake Tapper, has already said on television in evaluating the results as they have been coming in, “the Republicans have been chasing this car for a long time – and now they’ve caught it.” The implied question is what they are going to do with it. While they can advance a consistently anti-Obama legislative agenda and take the public bows over that, they also run the risk of moving so profoundly in that direction that the public rejects their efforts as too radical. Moreover, the tea party wing of the party – where its incumbents in the House of Representatives especially have not taken any electoral punishment – may also force splits in the Republican caucus over even more radical policy agenda items, giving the Obama administration and the remaining Democrats a way of forestalling more thorough Republican legislative gains.
For most politicians, commentators and political strategists, of course, the results are now going to be parsed in minute detail for what all of these outcomes will mean for 2016. This examination will extend right down to close looks at results, county–by- county, precinct-by-precinct, to see what lessons can be gleaned for prospective presidential candidates – or their putative agendas to appeal to voters. Going forward, Hillary Clinton, the presumed frontrunner among Democrats for the nomination even though the campaign has yet to begin, will now be trying hard to figure out how to secure her party’s leadership even as she repudiates the Obama style of leadership (and some of its policies) and attempts to reach back to an earlier version of her party – presumably that of her husband’s time in office. For Republicans, of course, with their whole noisy basket of potential candidates – including Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Governors Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, and former Governor Jeb Bush, among others – the task ahead is to figure out how to frame their candidacies to take advantage of this Republican wave. But they must do this in terms of actual legislative agendas as well as the larger demographic picture needed to win in the so-called Blue Wall of Northeastern states and the West Coast that rather reliably provide some 242 electoral votes out of the needed 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
But for now, there will be some significant “morning after the night before” sombre rethinking among Democrats, even as there will be lots of gloating and self-satisfaction among Republicans. Then there will be the obligatory expressions of leaders reaching across the aisle to work together for the American people, now that those people have spoken (even if only a minority of eligible voters chose to vote in this mid-term election). Then the political mud-wrestling will really begin. DM
Photo: Supporters cheer as Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas is declared a winner over independent candidate Greg Orman in the midterm elections Topeka, Kansas, USA, 4 November 2014. EPA/ED ZURGA