It’s actually not all that stunning for the party out of power to make sizeable gains in the sixth year of a president’s time in office, even after the president has won a smashing reelection victory two years earlier. As of now, the Republicans will have picked up seven to nine Senate seats in the 2014 midterms. But it happened to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, when the Democrats gained thirteen Senate seats, and it happened to Ronald Reagan in 1986, when the Democrats picked up eight seats. In fact the average mid-term loss of Senate seats for the party of a second-term president is nearly six seats. So what was all the commotion about?
There was the widespread surprise over the scale of the Republican sweep, not just in the Senate but also the House, where with 250 seats they have the largest majority since 1929; and in the governorships and state legislatures—where they set an all-time record of control of two-thirds of state legislative bodies. The victories at lower levels of government give them many long-term advantages, including significantly greater opportunities to draw electoral districts and groom future leaders.
But the shock was mainly caused because, purely and simply, the polls were wrong across the board. They overestimated Democratic turnout by almost twice as much as they underestimated it in 2012. (Midterm elections are notoriously hard to poll.) In fact the turnout this year—just 36.6 percent of eligible voters—was the lowest since 1942, when many Americans went off to war. David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report termed it an “epic turnout collapse.” The Democrats’ much-vaunted turnout operation worked extremely well in 2008 and 2012, when there was an appealing, to millions even exciting, candidate at the head of the ticket. An unpopular president cannot work the same magic.
Nor did the Democrats have a persuasive message to sell. They had no message at all. They feared any association with Obama, which included mentioning his achievements, and they worried that any boasting about the improvement in the economy since he took office would make them appear out of touch, since the recovery’s positive effects have done little to improve the situation of much of the middle class. The unwillingness to tout the benefits of the Affordable Care Act despite its clear success was a major missed opportunity: exit polls showed that people listed health care as the second reason they voted for a Democratic candidate.
The result of all their inhibitions was that the Democrats had no brand, stood for nothing, offered the voters nothing. Other than trying to instill fear of their opponents, they gave the voters scant reason to turn out or vote for them. The Democrats’ inability to claim ownership of even their more popular issues was all the more obvious when four states that elected Republicans to the Senate—Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Alaska—also approved ballot initiatives calling for an increase in the minimum wage. This is not to suggest that the Republicans offered substance: their predominant campaign theme was to tie their opponent to Obama. In all, 2014 was one of the least edifying elections in memory.
The Republican lobbyist and respected political analyst Vin Weber explains that in looking at the pre-election polls—which showed at least ten close Senate races on the day before the balloting—most people forgot two longtime rules of politics. The first is that if an incumbent is hovering at around forty-five points in a close race, she is unlikely in the end to pick up undecided voters, who are presumably familiar with someone who has been in office for six years; if they’re still undecided at that point, if they vote at all they’re likely to go for the opponent. The second is that if the president is unpopular, it is a huge burden on his party’s candidates. “Mark Udall is a fine senator but the president’s approval number was so low in Colorado that it dragged him down,” Weber says, “and Udall never got above forty-five percent.”
The second largely forgotten rule cited by Weber is that you cannot successfully run away from an unpopular president of your own party. The Republicans tried this in 1958 when Eisenhower’s economy was in a sharp recession, and in 2006 when they attempted to dissociate themselves from George W. Bush. The strategy failed in both cases. In trying to keep their distance from Obama—openly saying that they would just as soon not have him appear for them, or (in Udall’s case) pointedly being out of town when Obama came in to raise money for them—the Democrats succeeded only in underscoring his unpopularity. “Even the Democrats don’t like him,” voters could understandably conclude.
If the unusually low turnout was caused mainly by widespread disgust with Washington for being dysfunctional, however, that was no accident. Never in memory has a midterm election been turned against the leader of the party in power so cynically as it was by the Republicans for this year’s contest. The strategy was discomfitingly simple: the Senate Republicans’ devilishly shrewd leader Mitch McConnell would use the filibuster to slow the Senate to a crawl and prevent bills from passing. Thus it required sixty votes to get almost anything done. Even before Obama took office, the Republican leaders began planning ways to obstruct him from achieving his goals by opposing every piece of legislation he proposed. And, lo and behold, by year six the public reacted strongly against “gridlock” in Washington, for which they held the president, the most visible figure and ostensibly the most powerful one, responsible. This jiu-jitsu act performed by the Republicans was breathtaking in its audacity—and its success. Obama wasn’t the only victim of McConnell’s strategy: so was the country.
The Republican leaders’ jiu-jitsu extended to preventing Republicans from supporting Obama-backed legislation that might get passed. After the midterm election, McConnell was quoted in Vox saying, “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off these proposals.” Thus after the Republicans made sure that the Affordable Care Act passed without their support, Republican leaders attacked it as a “partisan” bill. With a straight face, they also lamented that the president had failed to “reach out” to them. This despite the fact that when Obama took the highly unusual step of offering to meet with the Republicans about a stimulus program during his first week in office, House Republican caucus announced that it would oppose such legislation even before he reached the Capitol. When in the summer of 2011 the president struck a “grand bargain” with John Boehner that included tax increases as well as cuts in entitlement programs, neither party was happy but the right-wing members of the House forced Boehner to abandon it. The House Republican caucus later ruled that Boehner, the Speaker of the House, could no longer negotiate with the president on his own.
To the dismay of many Democrats in Congress, the president persisted in thinking that if he met the Republicans half way they might compromise with him—and he was ready to move further still in the Republicans’ direction to try to reach an agreement. Thus his party members’ unhappiness with him doesn’t stem simply from his lack of cuddliness; there have also been strong strategic and substantive differences. Obama thought that by amping up deportations of illegal immigrants he could win Republican cooperation on an immigration bill, but of course no bill ensued in his first six years. The across-the-board opposition to a president’s program by the opposing party that Obama encountered was without precedent. (Even the fiery Newt Gingrich was cooperative with Bill Clinton at important moments.)
Obama of course helped bring a certain amount of his low standing on himself. He zoomed up through politics essentially on his own and built no strong alliances in Congress. He has had a tendency to spring policies on Democrats in Congress, and sometimes even on his own cabinet, in which they had no stake. Moreover, because all could see that there was no price for attacking him—the grubby aspects of politics, or what he considered such, didn’t interest him—the cost-free attacks simply increased. And this year, Obama quite evidently grew disgusted with his situation: “He more or less just threw up his hands,” says one of his few outside allies in Washington. The president displayed an almost petulant view that “this isn’t what I signed up for.” He sometimes came across as the boy who didn’t like what was inside his birthday cake.
As international crises and attacks by Republicans multiplied over the months leading up to the election, Obama’s expressive face increasingly conveyed his frustration and unhappiness. What he viewed as his crowning achievement of keeping his promise to end two wars was threatening to turn into a liability. He was held responsible for the rise of ISIS and the collapse of Iraq because he had withdrawn all but a few troops according to the status of forces agreement that was actually negotiated by George W. Bush. (Jack Reed, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said publicly that there was no way Obama could have got a change in that agreement.)
But Obama also failed to clearly explain his policies in Iraq and Syria and his rhetoric was increasingly and oddly marked by bloopers. His statement in early September about confronting ISIS in Syria, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” was probably the low point. As is often the case with the president, his meaning was understandable but the wording was so careless as to dismay even some of his most loyal supporters. This was followed by the announcement that his administration had put together an international coalition to fight ISIS well before such a coalition existed.
One result was that, most unusually, the president’s handling of foreign policy became an important issue toward the end of the campaign. Drawing on their skills at simplification and repetition, the Republicans were adept at making everything that went wrong appear to be Obama’s fault: Benghazi, Central American kids arriving at the US border, the Veterans Administration, ISIS, Ebola, even the Secret Service. Scott Brown was among those who made the comprehensive and efficient charge that ISIS was bringing Ebola into America over the Texas border. Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy dropped twenty points between 2012 and this summer, and by this fall voters were for the first time bringing up their concerns about that usually walled-off part of his presidency. In exit interviews voters told pollsters that ISIS and Ebola (at this point there were no known cases in the US) were reasons they voted for Republicans.
Since Obama is a very smart man, these blunders were bewildering. Was he just getting tired and weary of the job? It’s well understood around Washington that the president has a less than stellar collection of White House advisors and a weak national security staff in particular. New presidents without a lot of governing experience can make rookie mistakes, but six years on Obama continues to make them. And not just on foreign policy. He talked his way into a terrible predicament over whether he’d issue an executive order bypassing congressional inaction on immigration; his postponement of his original plan to issue these orders, announced early this summer, resulted in a significant drop in Hispanic support of the Democrats, which had been crucial to earlier Democratic victories in Colorado. (A Democrat senator said to me, “This is what you get when you have a drive-through president.”)
In all the breathlessness over the outcome of the 2014 midterms little attention was paid to the too-ample evidence that our democratic election system is working less and less as it should. I say this not because the Republicans were so successful—this trend away from truly democratic elections became apparent well before the 2012 presidential contest. The influence of big money is ever greater and more cloaked in mystery—thus more insidiously effective—and the nationwide Republican effort to block the votes of Democrats’ supporters are increasingly numerous and stringent. Along with anecdotal evidence of voters being blocked at the polls, there are those 40,000 “missing” registration forms in Georgia; and the estimated 600,000 would-be voters in Texas blocked by a highly restrictive new law that the Supreme Court allowed go ahead for this election. (Unhelpfully, three days after the election, a federal appeals court held that the new voter-ID laws that had been in effect during the vote—requiring proof of one’s citizenship, which disproportionately affects blacks, the elderly and students—were unconstitutional.)
The respected Brennan Center for Justice has reported that new voting restrictions on the in twenty-one states held down participation in the midterms—the first election since the Supreme Court removed some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act (on the ground that they were no longer needed). The Brennan report says that in several crucial races—in North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, and Virginia—the margin of difference between the two candidates closely matched the estimated margin of disenfranchisement as a result of these laws.
Any victory that was even partially based on an intentional plan to block the right of an opponent’s supporters to vote is dubious; our elections are increasingly becoming illegitimate. There appear to be constitutional grounds for nationalizing the standards for implementing the right to vote, but the new Republican-dominated Congress is unlikely to give up one of its most treasured devices for winning. Whether the Justice Department and the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will try to rectify this constitutional depredation is very much in question.
The infamous Citizens United decision in 2010 that, combined with subsequent rulings, permitted corporations to make donations to campaigns for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt’s era, and allowed groups of wealthy individuals (and corporations) to pool their money in so-called Super PACs, changed things drastically, but in ways that were unexpected. It turned out that corporations weren’t champing at the bit to make campaign donations, for fear that the disclosure of such expenditures would bring on attacks from opposing activist groups. So they found other ways to siphon large amounts of money into the political campaigns, with the donors’ names kept secret. The reform group the Sunlight Foundation calls these funds “dark money.”
A leading tenet of campaign finance reform has been that disclosure of who was making the donations would help reformers and journalists track who was buying influence from whom and for what. This was a wan second cousin to enforceable limits but as a result of those limits being stripped away (on questionable if not specious grounds), disclosure was all we were left with. Now even that protection against corruption is being eliminated. Super PACs such as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads are turning to secret contributions. Thus we don’t know who is contributing vast sums of money or even where the money is going.
This year’s senatorial race in North Carolina provided the most spectacular example of the ever-increasing influence of dark money. It was the most expensive statewide race in the nation’s history: $107 million was spent by the candidates and outside groups; and of that sum less than a third, or $28.9 million, was spent by the candidates. The ads by the outside groups contributed greatly to the negativity that characterized the North Carolina race (and elsewhere as well) and appears to have turned off so many voters: according to the Sunlight Foundation, $57 million was spent on negative messages as opposed to $18.3 million on positive ones.
It’s not just the giant contributions but also the mere threat that one will be made that can influence a politician’s behavior. Party leaders know that great gobs of cash can come in against the members of their caucus if they vote a certain way on a certain issue, and this affects decisions about the Congressional agenda. Certain bills might not be brought up for fear of the outside spending that might be unleashed against the members. However, this doesn’t work equally across the board: if the minimum wage isn’t raised, or the poor are deprived of adequate school lunches or housing subsidies, members of Congress can rest assured that no great amount of super PAC money will come in against them as a consequence.
If people feel that the system is rigged and are upset about the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else, with the middle class getting nearly wiped out, if they feel that “Washington is out of touch” with their daily lives, they can look to the unbridled and increasingly secret campaign finance system for a large part of the explanation. With the Senate now to be led by the foremost congressional opponent of campaign finance reform, action to fix this completely broken system is more remote than ever. Notwithstanding all the nice talk on the part of the president and the Republican leaders in the days following the election, we’re facing a long and nasty struggle among hard-bitten and cynical politicians with divergent needs, a wounded president desperate for a positive legacy, and the numerous figures positioning themselves for the next election.