Earlier this year, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus declared that the 2014 midterm elections were shaping up to be a “tsunami” for the GOP. His comment was tasteless, but was it true? Unlikely.
Let’s start with the House of Representatives, where there may be small GOP gains—if any gains at all. This may surprise you, because you’ve doubtless heard some pundit blab on about the six-year itch that is likely to hurt the Democrats in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term.
Historically, voters do tend to rebel after six years of one President in office and throw out a bunch of his House allies. But the massive gains won by the Tea Party in 2010 mean that there are just not that many new House seats sitting out there for Republicans this time around. Plus, House Republicans poll lower than head lice.
Or consider this year’s governors’ races, which actually tilt slightly toward the Democrats at the moment. Because governors serve four-year terms, the Republicans have to defend many more governors who won during the Tea Party wave of 2010. There is a decent chance that the Democrats can actually take back some seats this year.
As I write this, Maine and Pennsylvania seem likely to retire conservative Republicans, while Democratic incumbents are struggling in Illinois and Arkansas. But most of the next batch of contested gubernatorial races are in states held by Republicans, including some of the best-known GOP governors, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida. If these big names get the boot, or if Republican incumbents are upset in states like Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, or South Carolina, then the Democrats are likely to make gubernatorial gains this year, interfering with the predicted GOP wave.
However, I’ve been working in electoral politics since the McGovern campaign in 1972, and I’m well aware that some events count more than others. If Republicans gain six seats in the Senate, Priebus may get bragging rights anyway.
As of now, it’s too close to call. It’s so close that it may not be over on Election Night, if leading candidates in states like Louisiana and Georgia fail to break 50 percent and have to go to a runoff.
Harry Reid is barely hanging on to control of his chamber, as Democratic candidates face poor terrain, missing turnout, and big money.
What do I mean by poor terrain? Because Senators serve six-year terms, unlike governors, and because 2008 was an excellent year for Democrats with Obama leading the ticket, the 2014 Senate geography is almost bad enough to make Mitch McConnell smile.
The Republicans can at least theoretically take control of the Senate on their own turf, by winning in six out of seven states that Mitt Romney carried: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
From the 2004 to the 2008 Presidential elections, most of the country became more Democratic, in many counties by a lot. But there was one notable patch of holdouts—a swath of Appalachian counties that ran from western Pennsylvania over to eastern Texas. This swath includes four of the states with targeted Senate battles this year: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia.
In addition, Democratic retirements, plus the Republicans landing most of the recruits they wanted, mean that the GOP has a chance to win difficult races even in states that Romney did not carry in 2012 (like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire).
Then there’s the midterm “drop-off” in voter turnout.
There is no question that mid-term elections feature much lower turnout than do elections in Presidential years. Sadly, up to one-fourth or even one-third of the voters who turn out to vote for President stay home during the midterm elections two years later.
This missing turnout is made worse for progressives by the demographic truth that the dropouts are not distributed evenly. More African Americans and Latinos, more single women, more young people and poor people are likely to stay home, skewing the electorate toward older, whiter, and wealthier voters. As happened in 2010, this may be especially true without Barack Obama on the ballot, given his special attraction to key Democratic voting groups.
The last depressing factor is money—big money, dark money, the 1 percent’s money.
The tragedy is that big money in our politics has become such a standard fact of life that the media often slide right over it, acting as if million-dollar ad buys or massive amounts of negative advertising fueled by dark money from unknown, outside groups, unleashed months and months before Election Day, have always been the norm in Senate races. They have not.
The amount of outside money coming into our politics is swelling, especially since the Supreme Court’s pernicious Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for big money, for corporate money, for dark money. The grassroots movement to amend the Constitution to eliminate the idiotic legal fictions that money is speech and corporations are people has gained great momentum.
But winning Constitutional amendments takes time, as we know, and meanwhile the Koch brothers and Karl Rove and the Chamber of Commerce crowd are pressing their advantage, continuing to extend their economic clout into direct political power.
More money is going to be spent this year than in any midyear election ever, much from unknown sources.
And part of the reason the GOP unleashed such a fierce attack on the IRS a couple of years ago was to make sure that the watchdogs would be muzzled.
The rightwing dark money has been flooding in to all the targeted races, especially the Senate races, earlier for harsher attacks than ever before.
This is a trend that will continue until we, the people, make it stop.
In truth, while a Senate takeover by the GOP would be depressing, it would have smaller legislative effects than advertised, mostly because there is already no chance of passing any worthwhile legislation through John Boehner’s House right now.
A GOP Senate takeover would likely accelerate President Obama’s plans to use his executive tools to take action on issues like climate change, a fairer economy, and the war on drugs. Republican control of the Senate might even intensify that strategy, since daring executive actions by the President on an issue like, say, immigration, would inspire new heights of frenzy among the wingnuts, leading to louder and more insistent demands for impeachment.
Since the GOP’s impeachment threats would require an unattainable two-thirds vote to convict in the Senate, those tactics would ultimately fail. And since the public opposes impeaching Obama, the whole tactic becomes a catch-22 trap for the GOP, where its rightwing drives the party to act, while the voters reject it for doing so—a dynamic which once boosted Bill Clinton and damaged Newt Gingrich.
But GOP control of Congress would not be fun. For one, the GOP could double the number of “investigations” against the Obama Administration (“Benghazi!”).
There would also be legislative setbacks at moments when the President is on the defensive, such as with the hysteria about Central American children crossing the border or the shifting demand for war in Syria/Iraq. The Republicans could ram through “stupid stuff” that the White House might be too timid to veto, and we would all pay the price. And on the judicial front, Obama would have a much harder time confirming progressive nominees for the federal bench, including the all-important Supreme Court.
A GOP Senate would try to do its damage quickly, too, mindful that its time in power might be short-lived because the terrain in 2016 for the Senate races is the flip side of this year’s bad Democratic terrain.
It is a fool’s errand to count up victories in races that are more than two years away, so I won’t do it (fool or not), but it is nevertheless true that the 2016 Senate seats will be those that were carried by Republicans in the 2010 Tea Party takeover. This means that they have a lot more tenuous turf to defend, including several blue states that the Democratic Presidential nominee is expected to carry, and featuring the larger and more diverse electorate that will vote in 2016. (Are you listening, Russ Feingold?)
In any case, the 2014 Senate races are not over, and despite all the hype, the GOP has not yet prevailed. Given the red voting habits in most of the battleground states, plus the amount of early money that has washed into them, it is somewhat amazing that these races are still in doubt.
But they are, and the Democrats have tough, tested incumbents like Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina defending their seats with a chance to hang on.
There is still a real chance that Alison Grimes will retire Mitch McConnell (at last!). There’s even a chance that Pat Roberts will pay a price at the polls for making it clear that he returns to Kansas less often than Toto. And progressive populist Rick Weiland may yet maneuver his grassroots campaign through a four-way race to pull off a surprise win in South Dakota, the 2014 version of Heidi Heitkamp’s big upset in North Dakota two years ago.
If any of that happens, the Republican “tsunami” may turn out to be a lot of froth. u
Steve Cobble was elected as a McGovern national convention delegate at age twenty, and has worked in progressive politics ever since, including the Jackson, Nader, and Kucinich Presidential campaigns. He is currently busy trying to draft Bernie Sanders to run for President as a Democrat in 2016.