Five Take-Aways from Yesterday’s Midterm Election

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Yesterday’s mid-term election was a big win for a Republican Party badly in need of good news. Here are five takeaways from yesterday’s election, beginning with the obvious:

1) A very good night for the GOP. This was always going to be a tough year for Democrats. Speculation that the government shutdown might cost the GOP the House notwithstanding, a disproportionate number of Democrats faced reelection in Republican-leaning states. Add to this the fact that low turnout in midterms generally favors Republicans, the fact that President Obama  (42% approval) and his policies (Obamacare, 38.1% approval) are stubbornly unpopular, and that the economy continues to underwhelm, and 2014 was always going to be an uphill slog for Democrats. (Many of these trends will be reversed in 2016. More on that later.)

Bad year for Dems aside, last night’s Republican wave reached farther than many thought it would–the governors’ mansions in true-blue states like Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts come to mind. And while no one really expected Democrats to hold the line in places like South Dakota and Montana, losing in Iowa, Colorado, and North Carolina, while holding Virginia (it appears) by only the narrowest of margins was a big defeat for Democrats.

When all the dust settles and the last vote is counted (and the last runoff run), Republicans could well have a 60+ seat margin in the House of Representatives, hold 53 or 54 Senate seats (crucial for judicial appointments), occupy 31 governor’s mansions, and control close to two thirds of all legislative houses at the state level.

2) Candidates matter: The must-read story of the day is this outstanding piece from Philip Rucker and Robert Costa at the Washington Post. They tell how the GOP made a concerted effort to recruit viable candidates and, above all, to make sure the candidates were disciplined and well-prepared. This effort paid off. He’s a telling bit from Rucker and Costa:

Minutes after landing at Reagan National Airport one day early this year, many GOP Senate hopefuls found themselves besieged at baggage claim by people with cameras yelling questions at them about abortion and rape.

This was no impromptu news conference but rather Republican staffers in disguise, trying to shock the candidates into realizing the intensity of what lay before them.

From the airport, the startled candidates were whisked off to NRSC headquarters for a series of meetings. There were policy briefings led by Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney’s former policy director, as well as communications boot camps and media training from Roger Ailes associate Jon Kraushar, who has mentored Fox News personalities.

Looming large were the ghosts of combustible campaigns past: Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle.

“How do you fundamentally go about making human beings who are wildly unpredictable more predictable?” the NRSC’s Collins said. “It’s not about replacing what they believe. Pro-life is a majority view in this country, so how do you talk about it in terms that are relevant and not characterized as extreme?”

This is an important and encouraging point. Social issues are not political poison so long as they are handled intelligently and with discipline. In fact, Democrats’ obsession with social issues can easily play to GOP advantage, which bring us to…

3) A bad night for the #WarOnWomen: Wendy Davis–champion of abortion on demand–lost her bid for governor of Texas. In fact, she didn’t just lose, she got crushed. Mark Udall–who talked about “reproductive rights” so much he earned the nickname “Mark Uterus,” also lost badly. (It was a very good night for pro-lifers, too.)

Conservatives aren’t the only ones saying good riddance to the War on Women meme. Take it away, Michael Sean Winters:

The Democrats must do some soul-searching. I hope the decisive defeat of Sen. Udall in Colorado, a state Obama won twice, will convince all future Democratic candidates that they can’t count on EMILY’s List to win elections for them.  Udall’s ads were so singularly focused on issues of reproductive rights and access to contraception, he was dubbed “Sen. Uterus.” Similarly, Wendy Davis, whose name the nation knows only because she filibustered a law that would have restricted access to abortion, did not manage to get even 40% of the vote in her bid for the governorship in Texas.

The notion of a Republican “War on Women” isn’t just “played out” or “tired” as a campaign issue; it was never true to begin with. If Democrats want to woo American women with “a single-minded focus on the gynecological,” that’s their business, but after yesterday, it’s hard to see it as a winning strategy. Matt Lewis sums it up at The Week:

There’s a phenomenon in sports whereby you lose your psychological edge and nobody is afraid of you any more.

That seems to be what has happened here. If you’re looking for a date to mark the demise of the war on women, November 4, 2014, seems like a pretty good one.

Oh, and yes, Sandra Fluke lost her bid for California State Senate.

4) Names to watch for 2016: First, it was a bad night for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. Sure, she wasn’t on the ballot, but in important races where she campaigned hard for fellow Democrats, the GOP did well–Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin all defeated their Clinton-backed opponents, and did so convincingly. Hillary Clinton is still the obvious front-runner for her party in 2016, but expect to hear more chirping, especially from the left, about more progressive alternatives like Elizabeth Warren. (Clinton surely knows this, and is already making moves to protect her left flank.)

Going back to Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Governor has now won three statewide elections in four years—and this in a blue state and against a determined, organized, and well-funded opposition. Walker is a conservative’s conservative who has a notable habit of winning tough elections; expect to hear his name a lot more over the next two years.

The GOP has a tendency to nominate moderates to lead the presidential ticket–Romney, McCain, Bush 43 (at least in 2000; remember compassionate conservatism?), Dole, and Bush 41 all fit this bill. Walker does not. He’s been polarizing, but his priorities have always been in those policy areas where conservative policies have fairly broad appeal–reigning in public-sector unions, for example–which explain, in part, his ability to weather everything the Democrats have thrown at him.

Another GOP governor to watch is John Kasich. Anytime you can win reelection in Ohio by 30+ points, as Kasich has just done, you’re name goes on the list of presidential possibilities. His reputation as a conservative who governs as a common-sense moderate in will endear him to many. (Also, did I mention he just won Ohio by 30+ points?)

5) Republicans face a very tough road ahead: As good a night as it was for Republicans, the next two years will be critical. A margin of close to 50 seats in the House is probably enough for Republicans to keep the majority in anything but the worst of years. (The last time Democrats picked up close to 50 House seats was in 1974, when they picked up 49 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.)

A two or three seat Republican majority in the Senate is very vulnerable in 2016 for many of the same reasons Dems were vulnerable this year. Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner explains:

Up for re-election in 2016 in states Obama won are first-term GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Mark Kirk (Illinois), Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania). These senators all won in the GOP wave of 2010. Hanging on — especially in Pennsylvania , Wisconsin and Illinois — in a presidential year is a very heavy lift. New Hampshire and Florida won’t be easy, either.

Given how thoroughly Republicans ran the map in 2010, finding new states to pick up seats is very hard.

Above all, Republicans will need to decide what they will try and accomplish over the next two years. With Obama in the White House for two more years, and the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, the GOP can’t get simply impose its will. Will the GOP try and find areas of compromise with the White House? Will they play to their conservative base by “going big” on legislation they know will fail by filibuster or veto? Or will they carefully lay the political and policy foundations that will give the next GOP nominee—whoever that might be—the best shot at winning the White House in 2016?

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Since 2005, Mr. White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society: a three week seminar on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, which takes place every summer in Kraków, Poland. He studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelisation School in London, England.

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