The 2014 Midterm Election: Just How Bad Was It?

For anyone the slightest bit moderate, this election was a complete and utter disasterAccording to the Washington Post, the 114th Congress will be the most Republican Congress since 1929, and, more than likely, the most conservative at that.

First and foremost, it must be said—unequivocally so—that the Republican Party beat the Democrats. Indeed, though conservative rhetoric often appears overly simplistic—if not patently false—it worked. Such campaigning mobilized an immense number of people. Unlike 2012, this campaign witnessed no major gaffs. Significant money and time were spent training this crop of candidates to properly conduct themselves in front of the media. 2014 saw no Todd Akins; rather, Democrats made the fatal errors. Alison Grimes, who had a real shot at beating Mitch McConnell (the soon-to-be Senate majority leader), started her campaign with a terrifying mistake in which she “forgot” if she had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Things that we thought would destroy Republican credibility, such as the government shutdown or the overuse of filibusters, were framed in order to benefit Republicans, and as a result, they won.

Before we castigate the Democrats, it is essential to understand the trends of a midterm. First, in almost every midterm election, turnout is about 2/3 (if not less) than that of the general election. Second, the party in power (the part of the President) almost always loses seats. There have only been three examples in the past where the president’s party has picked up seats in both Senate and House (and only six cases in which there were gains in one of the two); given Obama’s unpopularity, gaining seats just wasn’t a possibility. Lastly, there are instances called waves in which one party dominates all close elections. Indications sometimes show a wave is coming, but occasionally the arrival of a wave is only known as the results come in. The basic indicator of this is that all swing states go to one party.

In 2014, the landscape inherently favored the Republicans as the GOP had to swing six seats occupied by Democrats and there were eleven Democrat-held seats at risk to be swung. Three of these states were without a doubt going to be won by the Republican challenger: Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota. So of the remaining seven, the GOP needed three. This is, for all intents and purposes, why so many people predicted the GOP to take over the Senate. Given that these seven states were all polling extremely close (Michigan aside), logic further tells us that the probability of liberals maintaining control was virtually impossible. The question was much more about how much would the Democrats lose. The only hope for team blue was that three Republican held seats were shown to be within striking distance (Kentucky, Georgia, and Kansas).

Of the states that were competitive, all but Michigan and New Hampshire went red. Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, and Alaska have already been won by the GOP. The Louisiana race is headed to a runoff since no one scored above 50%, but the Democrat is significantly behind. As far as the Senate is concerned for the Democrats, this really was the worst-case scenario.[1] Ultimately the Democrat won reelection in Virginia, but the fact this race even became competitive (let alone ultra-competitive!) shows just how much the Republicans dominated. Of course, Kansas, Kentucky, and Georgia all went to the Republicans as well. This was, for all purposes, a massive electoral wave.

While the Senate races highlight the extent of the electoral wave, the real evidence of the trend is in the governors’ races. This year’s election featured a large number of GOP governors, as well as numerous open seats that would be highly contested—especially in blue states. Tea Party governors who were elected in 2010 would also be facing their first test at reelection. This would be a real experiment to witness the longevity of the Tea Party movement. The most notable of these incumbents were Scott Walker (WI), Rick Scott (FL), Tom Corbett (PA), Paul LePage (ME), John Kasich (OH), and Rick Snyder (MI).

The results of these races from a liberal perspective are grimmer than the Senate results. Every single one of the aforementioned races (except Corbett) was won by the incumbent. Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and Paul LePage all were polling almost at 50% if not less, but they won by large margins. Indeed, Tom Corbett lost, but he was so horribly unpopular in his state that had he pulled off a victory, someone would have had to investigate the race for fraud. Most telling, however, is the fact that Democrats lost in virtually every single close race besides Colorado and Connecticut (more on these two to follow). Massachusetts and Maryland even went red! This constitutes nothing other than an absolute disaster.

There were structural shifts that might have contributed to this wave. This election was the first election post-McCutcheon v. FEC, which removed aggregate limits on individual donations to political parties and committees. There is much to discuss regarding this, as the cost of this election skyrocketed once again, reaching almost $4 billion. This certainly benefited the Right—as they raised more money than those on the Left. There were also voter ID laws that were implemented for Election Day and even a tragic instance of ballots being “lost” in Georgia.

There is, however, a pseudo-structural aspect of this election that really is more inexcusable than anything. The 2014 election had a 36.4% voter turnout, which is the lowest since WW2. Such low participation, with the exception of a few states, no doubt benefited the GOP—as those who don’t turn out are usually liberals. The largest portion of those who do not turn out in midterm elections is generally the “youth”. This is a serious problem. If Democrats do not show up at the polls, especially when the GOP is firing up voters, waves are more likely to occur. If there is anything that should make you mad about this election, it is not that the GOP dominated, rather it should be that liberals did not show up to vote.

This last point is illustrated by Vassar College. If we take the number of Vassar students who were registered to vote in Dutchess County (about 450), we see that student turnout was alarmingly low. (Note of caution: I am not insinuating that we should take Vassar’s population as a liberal voting bloc. It is true that while the vast majority of students are in fact registered members of the Democratic Party, there are many non-party affiliated voters. Nonetheless, since the student vote is largely liberal nationally, we can effectively take Vassar as a case study not only for the student vote more generally, but also for the liberal student vote). Of the 450 students, approximately 65-80 voted in this past election. This is a turnout of roughly 18%. According to a retired professor of political science, the high mark for Vassar turnout is roughly 25%. So, 18% even in a midterm is abysmal. Let us not equivocate: there is no excuse for this number—especially not when the NY state elections were as close and as important as they were this year. Polls are open from 7am to 9pm, and yet, some Vassar students claimed they were too busy to vote. Others didn’t even know it was Election Day. Some even claimed that they didn’t know whether they were registered to vote! If these are the excuses that Vassar students use on Election Day, one has to wonder how frustrating turnout must be on other less politically engaged campuses. This is a serious problem and it without a doubt contributed to the atrocious results in these elections.

The question demands to be asked: is there anything positive from this election? The answer is no. The one thing worse than losing badly, is losing badly, making excuses, and finding flimsy victories. Nonetheless, I will attempt to find some very small silver linings.

First, in spite of the sheer size of this wave, there were areas this wave couldn’t penetrate. The governors of Colorado and Connecticut won reelection, which is fascinating as not only did the Democrat for Senate lose in Colorado, but also that both of these men passed harsh gun control measures and campaigned while highlighting them. A gun control referendum was also passed in Washington, which again adds some intrigue to this election. Virginia was another silver lining, as the wave did not hit hard enough to unseat Democrat Mark Warner. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire likewise held off Republican challenger Scott Brown.

Second, Democrats still hold the filibuster in the Senate. It is unclear if the Democrats have the chutzpah to stand firm like the Republicans had been doing; nor do we know if Democrats can use the filibuster as effectively as the Republicans have without any political blowback in 2016.

Lastly, this election was structurally against the Democrats. Not only were all the aforementioned changes not in their favor, but they plainly had more seats to lose. Among the Democrats up for reelection were the ones that narrowly won victory as they rode the electoral wave that Obama created in 2008 (this was the same deluge that brought in a 60 seat majority in the Senate). This means that there were Senators who would have never won their seats without this calamitous flood. That said, 2016 will likely shape up as the reverse: one must remember that many Democratic incumbents lost to Tea Partiers who benefited from the wave in 2010. In 2016, these first term Senators will have to face the test. This being the case, Republicans up for reelection will significantly outnumber Democrats (24 to 10). Furthermore, since voter turnout will be higher as it will be a Presidential campaign, the chance the Democrats take back the senate in 2016 is relatively high.

At this point, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that President Obama stays strong. As much grief as we may feel about these results, I highly doubt there is anyone who is more upset about what will happen with this new GOP controlled Senate than he.

[1] Admittedly, losing New Hampshire would have made this worse, but Scott Brown was such a bad candidate that for sake of argument this really was as bad as we could have possibly imagined.

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