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After the Fall

Bad news for Democrats
by Hamilton Fish

Nov 11, 2014 | Blog



A day after claiming Republican victories in the mid-term elections gave him a mandate to put an end to dysfunction and gridlock in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner announced he would call yet another vote to repeal health care reform, bringing to 55 the number of times he has brought such a measure to the floor of the House. “The American people have made it clear they’re not for Obamacare,” he added. “Ask all those Democrats who lost their elections Tuesday night.” In fact, after four years of failed attempts to prevent health care coverage for millions of uninsured, even the most extreme Republican candidates abandoned health care as an issue during the campaign this fall. They stopped raising it because Obamacare is working and the public supports its essentially American mission of caring for the most vulnerable. The unhinged House may take another time-wasting crack at killing Obamacare, but in the Senate, even with its newly-minted Republican majority, the votes won’t be there.

Also that day, The Wall Street Journal featured Boehner and Mitch McConnell’s mind-bending op-ed arguing that the voters had given them a mandate to fix a government “that seems incapable of performing even basic tasks.” This comes, as Salon’s Simon Malloy observed, from the co-authors of the government shutdown of 2013, the debt-limit fiascoes, the fiscal cliff, and the Caucus of No, who now want the public to believe they are the antidote to the poison they administered.

The routing of Democratic gubernatorial candidates and shifts in control of state legislatures to Republicans in six states is bad news in the long term for Democrats, even if there’s a national resurgence in 2016 that allows them to retain the White House and make gains in Congress.

The Senate may have changed hands, but the underlying fundamentals of Washington politics have barely budged. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones points out that McConnell has spent six years obstructing everything in sight, Boehner has spent four years in a wholly futile attempt to reign in the Tea Partiers, and Obama is persuaded that executive action is the only way to get anything done. He sees no special reason to think that any of this will change. Drum fearlessly predicts an early grave for tax and immigration reform, concedes the Keystone XL will probably get built, sees no likelihood of repeal of either Obamacare or the president’s environmental regulations, and is agnostic on trade agreements and an Iranian nuclear deal. Oh, and his prediction for a Republican presidential nominee in 2016? Wisconsin’s resilient governor, Scott Walker.

Deconstruction of the midterms has also centered on Hillary Clinton. Two of her leading competitors were diminished by the results—Andrew Cuomo’s lackluster win in New York and the upset of outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley’s hand-picked successor in Maryland leave both contenders facing uphill climbs. Hammering Obama proved a winning formula for Republicans, so distancing themselves from Obama will be de rigueur for Democrats in 2016. The hard part will be to sell this copycat strategy to a Democratic base that twice engineered his election and in states where African-American voters are the key to success. Clinton seemed uncomfortable with this posture before the election, appearing to retreat from her suggestion that she would have handled things better than her boss, but she may now feel less constrained, especially with increasing calls for Elizabeth Warren to join the field.

With a passel of new statehouses and Senate seats, the GOP is understandably jubilant. But looking down the road, as Andrew Romano writes in a well-argued analysis at Yahoo News, there’s a lot less to be complacent about. Sixteen of the 20 contested Senate seats heading into this recent election were held by Democrats, and six of those were in states which Obama lost in 2012. This gave the Republicans a huge advantage. Romano points out that most of the Republican gains were in states that will not be contested in 2016, and of their three gains in purplish states—Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina—one, in Colorado, required that the tenth most conservative member of Congress undergo a complete makeover. In the House, Cory Gardner was a pro-life Republican who opposed even the Republican efforts at immigration reform, voted to shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood was defunded and supported Ted Cruz’s schemes to gut Obamacare. But Gardner adjusted to Colorado’s changing demographics for his Senate race and displayed new-found flexibility on immigration, abortion and birth control.

Romano makes the point that in the last six elections, 18 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have voted with the Democrats every time. Assuming this pattern holds, the Democratic nominee starts with 242 electoral votes, and needs only 28 out of the remaining 183 that are considered tossups to win. To be competitive, the Republican will basically have to run the table on the purple states—“not a game plan with a high probability of success”—according to Republican pollsters Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse.

Republicans need much more of the white vote, and much more of the Latino vote, neither of which are likely in Romano’s forecasting. Additionally, 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for re-election in 2016 are currently held by Republicans, and four of those are occupied by Senators who may either be retiring or running for president, so regaining the majority in the Senate is a realistic objective. Whatever your view of the desultory Democratic caucus, the best (and at this point only) hope for reform of dark money in elections and targeted voter suppression is a change in the composition of the federal judiciary, and for that you need a Democratic president and control of the Senate.

Still, as Steve Friess observes in Al Jazeera America, the size of the GOP wave—seen in the routing of Democratic gubernatorial candidates and shifts in control of state legislatures to Republicans in six states—is bad news in the long term for Democrats, even if there’s a national resurgence in 2016 that allows them to retain the White House and make gains in Congress. He quotes Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, who points out that control of more state legislatures also gives Republicans control over once-a-decade congressional redistricting, which they have used for the past two decades to re-draw districts that are nearly impossible for Democrats to win.

“I really wonder if the Republicans have given up altogether” on winning the presidency, Greer said. “The Republican Party has looked at the electoral map and realized it is very difficult for them to win. But they have their statehouses, their governorships and their judges. And now they control Congress. What’s the point of being the president?”

—Hamilton Fish

Hamilton Fish is the publisher of The Washington Spectator.

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