NASF on The 2014 Midterm Elections: Historic Republican Gains & Predictions for the New Congress

Post-election coverage from the National Association for Surface Finishing

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by The National Association for Surface Finishing (nasf.org)

 

What many predicted would be a marginal Republican victory in the midterm elections turned into a Republican rout across the country, leaving President Obama and Democrats reeling.  Republicans handily took control of the Senate, gained the largest Republican majority in the House of Representatives since World War II, and now control 31 state governorships.  

Sweeping across geographies that Obama and the Democrats won handily in 2012, Republicans presented a unified, conciliatory message that they would move beyond the status quo to break the gridlock that has dominated Washington.  And the voters’ response was clear – it is indeed time for a change.

How and whether the Republicans will accomplish their goals is already the topic of much debate, particularly as the 2016 presidential election looms.   The new congressional leadership faces many challenges, not least of which include a diverse Republican caucus, several presidential contenders with their own agendas, and a Democratic president with veto power.

The Election by the Numbers[1]
In a post-election press conference from the White House, President Obama gave an extremely low key acknowledgement of the Republican sweep,  noting that “obviously, Republicans had a good night.”  His remarks stood in stark contrast to his reaction to Democratic losses in 2010, which he had called a “shellacking.” 

By any measure, the numbers this time reflect a stunning defeat for the President and Democrats:

  • Senate: Of the 33 Senate seats in contention, Republicans held all of their seats and gained at least 7, including in most of the competitive races (CO, AR, GA IA, NC), and stand poised to pick up LA and AK as well.  If predictions hold, Republicans will gain 9 seats overall, ruling the Senate with 54 seats – a commanding, although not veto-proof, majority.   
  • House of Representatives: Republicans were expected to make only minor gains given the widely held view that state redistricting efforts had already sorted out Republican from Democratic districts.  However, their unexpectedly strong performance, including in states that lean Democratic (NY and IL most notably), undermined this assumption and left Republicans with what is likely to be the largest Republican majority since the Truman administration (243 R, 179 D, 13 undecided). 
  • Governors: Surprising wins in Democratic leaning states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, expanded Republicans’ nationwide majority.  Moreover, of the governors mansions that were occupied by Republicans going into Tuesday’s election, a Republican was elected or re-elected in every race except for one (PA), leaving Republican governors in control of 31 states compared to Democrats’ 17, with 2 races still undecided (VT, AK). 

Lessons from the Election
Most predictions called for a Republican victory, but the scale of the win was entirely unexpected.  Most well regarded pundits predicted modest gains for Republicans, but nowhere near the scale of the 2010 elections.  The 2014 results were indeed closer to 2010 than expected, and candidates and observers alike are left wondering how the political dynamic changed so quickly in just two years.  Taking a closer look, what really happened?  In sorting through the data-sifting and analyses, there are some informative lessons and political observations to be drawn from Tuesday’s results.

The Map was a Loser for Democrats
Among the key takeaways for both parties from this election – and the overwhelming factor in the Democrats’ defeat – was the nature of the seats Democrats had to defend. As top pundit Charlie Cook has observed, even had they run a perfect campaign, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to maintain control of the Senate.  Six of the 21 states that Democrats were defending were in states that Mitt Romney won by at least 14 points in his 2012 presidential campaign, and he won North Carolina as well, another state where the Democratic incumbent lost.    In contrast, Republicans were defending only 15 seats, 14 of which were deep red states, and one was Maine, the only one of the 15 states that Obama won in 2012 and where the incumbent was well-positioned to win (Collins).  Additionally, Democrats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia retired and left open seats in deep red states.  The geography of this election strongly worked against the Democrats before the campaign even started.

The Obama Coalition without Obama Cannot Stand Alone
Turnout in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, particularly among youth, women, minorities, and lower income voters, reached record levels – and largely voted Democrat.  This year, as we discuss below, Democrats just weren’t able to fully engage the “Obama Coalition”, despite the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raising $134 million ($30 million more than the Republican counterpart).  This mattered, particularly as Republicans have begun adopting more sophisticated data-driven voter identification and communication strategies that proved so successful for the earlier Obama campaigns.  Instead of drawing a diverse voting population, this year’s voting population represented the typical midterm voting population: white, male, and upper-class. 

Moreover, Democrats’ greatest asset in 2008 and 2012 was arguably Obama himself, especially given his victories in traditionally purple and red states.  Unlike in previous elections, Obama, or any connection to him, was a liability in these midterms.  And as a state legislator from Georgia, Vincent Fort, noted when asked why Georgia didn’t vote more Democratic, “They were running an Obama-style campaign without Obama. It’s like doing “Othello” without Othello.”[2]  In order to be successful moving forward, Democrats are going to have to learn how to engage the “Obama Coalition” and to do it without Obama.

“You Can’t Win on Turnout if You Lose on Message”
Republicans had a clear message in this election – “Washington isn’t working and we can fix it.”  And why, did they argue, is Washington broken?  President Obama.  Candidates were able to successfully portray Obama as the cause of gridlock in Washington, an imperial president who sidesteps Congress and who cannot be trusted to make good decisions on national issues such as ISIS, Ebola, and healthcare, among others.  And Obama was unable to translate his achievements into successes for the electorate, notably the economic recovery.  By most objective measures it has improved but he has been ineffective in making voters believe it despite the evidence.  As a result, many Democratic candidates were left grappling with creating a campaign narrative disconnected from Obama.

Can’t We All Just Get Along
Interestingly, candidates in the 2010 midterms appealed to voters’ desire for “principled” candidates – those who would “stick to their guns” and “not back down” in the face of opposition.  It was the year that saw a surge in Tea Party candidates, after all.  In 2014, voters expressed a desire for compromise and candidates that would try to foster cooperation, and Republicans heeded that call.  Bombastic rhetoric was replaced by pledges of cooperation.  The Republican establishment even successfully defended every Senate incumbent from primary election challengers, a significant achievement given historic issues with challengers from the right. Republican acceptance speeches across the country, including Sen. McConnell’s and Speaker Boehner’s, also echoed at least initially pledges to make government work and to find areas of agreement between Congress and the President.  Meanwhile, many Democrats had focused on just appealing to their own base in the hopes of driving turnout, which was unsuccessful and turned off many Independents.

Lame Duck Priorities
The current Congress will return to Washington on December 1st or 2nd to conclude legislative business for the year under the last days of Democratic leadership.  Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has remained committed to recessing no later than December 12, leaving a short window for moving legislation.

The highest priority will be to pass a Continuing Resolution or Omnibus legislation to fund the government until the next Congress takes over.  Additional outstanding items include the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, tax extenders, long-term fixes to the highway bill, and presidential appointments.

Democrats and Republicans have very different motivations coming into this Lame Duck.  Majority Leader Reid will want to confirm as many appointments as possible before Republicans take control and likely stall Obama’s nominees.  Republicans, hoping to start the new Congress on “winning” issues, will likely push for movement on the more contentious issues within its own caucus before taking over in January, namely spending bills that fund the government well into the new congressional session and a decision on the Export-Import Bank.  Of course, Democrats have little motivation to grant the wishes of Republicans to make governing their own party easier for them in the new Congress.

Next Congress’ Priorities
The big question that Washington pundits are asking is: After all of this talk about compromise, how will Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner actually lead?  Republicans have outlined a long list of priorities.  Chief among them are repealing the healthcare law, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing the medical device tax, Senate passage of previously passed versions of “jobs bills”, and making determinations about trade authority (which happens to be one issue where Republicans might work with the White House to give the President fast-track authority). It remains unclear how these will be accomplished in a congenial or cooperative environment with the President or congressional Democrats.

This will be an even greater challenge given that Sen. McConnell has pledged to fight Democratic policies through federal appropriations bills.  At a Republican fundraiser this summer, he stated: “I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing ‘riders’ in the bill.  No money can be spent to this or to do that.  We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial service, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board.” With this pledge, McConnell has set the stage for a possible government shut down in 2015, potentially forcing the President into a corner with a choice to either approve spending bills that attack his own priorities, or to stop funding the government.

Within the Senate bureaucracy, Sen. McConnell has been highly critical of Sen. Reid’s governing style, accusing him of ignoring and dismantling the Senate minority party.  Sen. McConnell has stated that he wants to restore the Senate to its rightful place as a respected deliberative body, and has previously introduced measures aimed at improving Senate governance.  He also adamantly opposed the Democrats change to the filibuster rules regarding judicial appointments.  But will he remain committed to these changes once Republicans are in the majority?

If he could learn one lesson from Sen. Reid it might be this: Democrats, in part, lost seats in this election because their voting record was so close to Obama’s that they were accused of being in the President’s back pocket.  But many have argued that Sen. Reid’s management of the Senate precluded Senators from introducing bills or amendments that would have shown their independence from the President, instead only allowing votes on bills that were guaranteed to pass and limiting debate and amendments on the floor.  How Sen. McConnell manages this situation may prove equally significant in 2016, a difficult election year for Senate Republicans.

2016 Implications
Washington insiders know that as soon as one election has ended, the next election starts the next day.  Eyes are already on 2016.  McConnell as the new Senate Majority Leader will have to manage presidential contenders in his own caucus, likely including Senators Paul, Rubio, and Cruz at a minimum, and perhaps others in the Democratic caucus.  He will also be facing a Senate election that is the reverse of this year’s race – Republicans will be defending 24 seats to Democrats’ 10.  Seven of these races are in states that Obama won in 2012 (FL, IL, IA, NH, OH, PA, WI), although unlike this year where Democrats were fighting for seats in red states, these are more purple states and therefore possibly less of a challenge.

How the 2016 election will impact these next two years remains unclear.  One thing that is certain, however, is that the President and Republican leaders in Congress will be jockeying for the political upper hand in order to promote their own parties’ candidates, which begs the question of whether they think they can actually acquire it through cooperation, or whether they will resume the conflict.

In our next update, we’ll discuss the specific impacts of the elections on key regulatory policy matters, including the environment, health & safety, labor and jobs and manufacturing.

 


[1] Vote totals/predictions from National Journal, current as of 11/6/14.Louisiana run-off to be held December 6th but leans Republican. Alaska result is too close to call, may take until November 18th for final results, Republican has slight lead. Virginia results still being certified, recount may occur, but Democrat still holds lead.

 

[2] Atlanta-Constitution, November 5, 2014.