Author: Logan Bronson & McHenry Lee, Johns Hopkins University
After their resounding defeat in the 2012 elections it seemed as if the Republican Party was heading down the path of electoral irrelevance. They had just been soundly beaten in a national election by a somewhat unpopular sitting President while losing the Hispanic, female, and young vote resoundingly in the process. Losing these voter groups seemingly spelled doom for the party because they are some of the fastest growing demographics in this country. However, fast-forward two years, and the GOP remains in governing control of much of the country. They hold the largest lead in the House of Representatives that any party has had since the Truman administration, they retook a majority in the Senate for the first time in eight years and they control an overwhelming majority of Governors’ offices. How were they able to undertake such a stark and massive turnaround?
In these midterm elections, Republican candidates clearly benefitted from the lack of a prevailing issue that dominated the national dialogue. This allowed GOP candidates to turn the election into a referendum on the policies of President Obama. With Obama’s approval hovering around 40%, this proved disastrous for Democratic candidates, especially those in swing states. The few policy disputes that did become national issues also allowed the Republicans to highlight unpopular positions that the Democratic Party has taken up. Specifically, the President’s stance against coal power doomed several democrats in states where coal is a huge job supplier, most notably in Kentucky and West Virginia. The GOP also capitalized on the recent crises in Iraq, Syria and the Ukraine. On exit polls, voters overwhelmingly blamed the president for the rise of ISIS and lack of action against Russia after their annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Although President Obama was not on the ballot, his policies loomed large on Election Day.
Several races, including those in Kentucky and Louisiana, took on the issue of the Senate majority. Each side’s candidates tried to motivate voters with rhetoric about what the other would do if they held majority. This energized Republican voters who were eager to get their party back into power, while liberal voters on the other hand seemed disinterested after years of control in the senate.
Because of the lack of a national theme, many contests came down to local issues, especially a select few gubernatorial races. Several deep blue states elected Republican governors because of the unpopularity of several incumbent or retiring Democrats, including Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Specifically, new Maryland governor Larry Hogan took advantage of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley’s, unpopularity by tying his opponent to the previous administration.
When it came to the Senate, Republicans also benefitted from favorable geography. Five incumbent Democratic Senators retired in states where Romney either won or was extremely competitive in two years ago. On the other hand, only two Republican incumbents retired, and they hailed from historically red states. Several incumbent Democrats also faced a major problem in the partisan makeup of their electorate including Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado.
Low voter turnout also helped many Republican candidates. Older, white and affluent voters, who tend to mostly vote Republican, turned out in much larger numbers this year than younger, minority and the less wealthy voters. Overall, about only 40% of eligible voters actually showed up to the polls, which is the lowest figure since World War II. There is no doubt that Democrats will use this low number to point out that the GOP doesn’t have a mandate when it comes to legislating. However they can’t deny the fact that they were resoundingly beaten among the voters who showed up. In other words, the democrats were unable to turn out their base.
Although they do well in national election years, the Democratic Party has a serious problem in midterm years and it has to do with voter turnout. As President Obama has shown us twice, his party has no problem turning out its base in Presidential elections, however they struggle when they don’t have a candidate on the ballot nationwide. The GOP HAS outgunned them in the last two-midterm elections, exposing an enthusiasm gap. If Republicans can consistently win big in midterm years, they will have control of Congress and many Governors offices for years to come, making it essential for Democrats to keep winning the White House in order to control at least one branch of government. This election also robbed the Democratic Party of several young up and coming stars, many of who could’ve been future party leaders. Many liberals had high hopes for the promising careers of Wendy Davis, Michele Nunn, and Anthony Brown, among others, who were all seen as potential national candidates and possibly 2016 VP options. On the other hand, the GOP was able to elevate some promising new figures into the national spotlight like Joni Ernst, John Kasich, Charlie Baker, and Tom Cotton.
What This Means Going Forward?
Even before the midterms, the President had received plenty of recent criticism regarding his lack of substantial action on immigration. With this issue at the forefront of the discussion, Obama has been quick to publically declare his intent to pursue an Executive Action route. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican set to take over as Senate Majority Leader, has essentially promised this will eliminate any potential of hope for inter-party reconciliation, let alone bipartisanship, right off the bat. Obama’s veto power offers another potential obstacle to Republican initiatives, and the Democrats still have 40 votes to counter with. But whether the latter turns out to be an effective advantage is yet to be seen. Long term, this could set the stage for a cold game of checkers, the back-and-forth cornering or jumping of one party’s attempts by the other for two long years.
Climate change policy is highly dependent on the generals’ commandeering offsite the battlefield. The new composition of the Senate means new committee chairs in control of such strategy, and in this case the environment should be concerned. James Inhofe, incumbent Republican from Oklahoma is rumored to fill the role of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair. He is one of Washington’s two most adamant climate change deniers, along with Ted Cruz, Texas’ Republican senator whose spot was not up for contestation this cycle. Admittedly, Obama’s efforts to tackle issues like climate change, conservation, and energy had recently been lacking this term, relative both to other issues and his first term; criticism of this dates as far back as his re-election campaign in 2012, when the environment comprised a minimal portion of his platform. Just this week, however, Obama revealed a major breakthrough deal as a result of bilateral talks with China that will have serious implications.
In the interim week since the midterms and the announcement of Wednesday’s agreement, journalists, political analysts, and college students alike have anticipated the likelihood of Republican majorities in both chambers making the president “small.” Broadly, the climate deal demonstrates that Obama has no intention of letting a new, aggressive Congress diminish his authority. Obama’s control of foreign policy legitimizes his prioritization of Asia as a critical area from a policy and security perspective. The deal is a significant achievement towards this end.
As for its particular impact on the environment, the deal is equally significant. Both nations plan to further reduce emissions by an additional 26-28% from the goals set in 2005—for the US this was 17% below that year’s levels. This is especially important regarding the Chinese acceptance of a greenhouse gases cap, since in the past they have only ever pledged to reduce carbon “intensity,” a term referring only to slowing the rate of growth of emissions as opposed to actually producing a negative rate.
Republicans, like Inhofe, Cruz, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, who publically denounced reducing carbon emissions on the grounds that China never would, have reacted and criticized aspects of the agreement, They echoed McConnell’s claims that at the core of this deal is Obama’s “War on Coal.” It supposedly promotes “job-crushing policies” that harm the middle class, working families who rely on affordable energy. But these attacks cannot undermine the significance of this climate change agreement.
The midterm results also threaten the Affordable Care Act, undoubtedly Obama’s most defining achievement as President. Obamacare is currently vulnerable from a judiciary standpoint as well, with the Supreme Court recently agreeing to hear arguments in King v. Burwell. (The case calls into question the constitutionality of subsidies in states where the federal government, instead of the market, has supported the exchanges). McConnell has no desire to shut down the government over health care debates, though aggressive opponents like Cruz and Senator Rand Paul (KY, R) support utilizing such a forceful maneuver.
The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision set back the Democrats’ women’s health initiatives, and the Republican Party has consistently taken risky positions at the gubernatorial level. Of the three propositions on the back of state ballots, Colorado and North Dakota’s attempts to define “personhood,” and Tennessee’s to restrict abortion access, only the latter passed. The state has been the most effective platform on which to restrict reproductive rights, though with McConnell leading the Senate, expect him to push an agenda that reflects similar movements at the federal level, including further restricting access to abortions and prohibiting them completely after 20 weeks, threats to maternal health excluded. Don’t expect Obama make light of any Republican action on matters of female health and reproductive rights—one he has called a matter of “all of ours.”
Some of the most shocking Republican victories were Ernst’s in Iowa, Cotton’s in Arkansas, and Gardner’s in Colorado; the former, though female, has taken a very public stance that the Republican “war on women” is grossly exaggerated. Gardner is taking over the seat of defeated opponent Senator Udall, who is known for his high regards from the ACLU and readiness to call on intelligence agencies, or at least their congressional oversight committees, for enhanced transparency. Udall and Senator Burr, a Republican from North Carolina whose seat was not up for election this year, often went head to head on the issue of classified intelligence; Burr believes no CIA conduct or knowledge thereof should need to be made public, and is about to replace current head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Obama has been relatively silent on all Snowden-esque themes pertinent to the agencies that rule issues of privacy, security, and the line between the two, but this Congress, come the beginning of its term next January, is likely to draw a drastically different one than the hyper-sensitized public has. Regarding the Internet and net-neutrality, though, Obama has made his position clear. Not so surprisingly, outspoken opponents like Cruz have criticized Obama’s support for net neutrality—claiming it would be the “Obamacare of the internet,” and claiming it would theoretically put the government in charge of internet pricing—even though Comcast, one of the major providers on the other side of the issue, has agreed, for now at least, to play nice. Obama’s adamant demand for protection of net neutrality in the week following potentially debilitating midterm results reminds the nation of his relevant prerogatives.
If the last four years are any indication, a Republican controlled Congress will mean even less cooperation between the White House and the GOP. President Obama and the Republicans are so far apart on many policies that there doesn’t seem to be any room for cooperation. However, there are two issues that they seem to agree on such as getting rid of tax loopholes for companies that outsource jobs and utilizing natural gas reserves in the US to end dependence on foreign energy. If the two sides are willing to compromise on the latter, expect the highly controversial Keystone Pipeline to be the key controversy.