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A Wave After All: Recapping the GOP’s Historic Night

Image: Joni Ernst

Chris White, of Norwalk, Iowa, center, reacts during an election night rally for U.S. Sen.-elect Joni Ernst, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Ernst defeated U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Charlie Neibergall / AP

Well, it was a wave after all. We all knew it was shaping up to be a good Republican night. But no one -- even the most optimistic GOP operative -- could have seen it playing out the way it did. Consider:

  • The GOP netted at least seven Senate contests, more than the six needed to win control of the U.S. Senate, and it’s possible they win two more -- (Alaska and Louisiana).
  • The party captured three of the four Senate contests taking place in presidential battleground states – Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina – coming up JUST short in New Hampshire. And, oh, btw, they almost won another in prized Virginia (and who knows what could happen when the state does its re-canvass);
  • It ran up the score in the extremely competitive gubernatorial contests, winning in Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin;
  • And it even won a race it had absolutely no business winning: the gubernatorial contest in deep-blue Maryland.
Ernst Promises to Make Washington ‘Squeal’ After Senate Win 0:54

What’s more, most of these GOP victories happened before midnight ET, when many believed that the battle for the Senate wouldn’t be decided until possible runoffs in December and January. The GOP successes don’t stop there. The Republican Party picked up double-digit House seats, increasing their majority in that chamber to its largest margin since the 1940s, if not the 1920s. And it’s poised to make additional gains in state legislatures across the country. In fact, don’t call it wave; call it a political typhoon. Structurally, the Republican Party has put itself in a position to control legislatures at all levels for the rest of this decade, at a minimum.

The Democratic coalition collapses

It wasn’t the map that did in the Democrats (after all, explain the losses in Maryland and Maine); it’s wasn’t your typical Six-Year Itch election; and it wasn’t an anti-incumbent mood (Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, even Paul LePage all won). Rather, what we saw was collapse of the Democratic coalition that helped elect President Obama in 2008 and 2012. If Democrats were going to hold off a Republican tsunami, they needed their base voters to come out to the polls and pull the lever for the president’s party. That didn’t happen where Democrats needed it to. Especially with young voters. Nationally, Democratic base groups -- young voters, single women, African-Americans and Latinos -- posted numbers that looked more like the Democrats’ 2010 midterm “shellacking” than Obama’s 2012 re-election victory. Most strikingly, voters 18-29 nationwide were only 13% of the electorate in 2014 (compared with 22% for GOP-leaning seniors.) In the 2010 midterms, young voters made up 12% of the voting public. In contrast, during Obama’s re-election victory in 2012, 19% of the electorate was under 30.

McConnell Not Backing Down From Obama in Victory Speech 0:44

The finger-pointing begins

Was it Obama’s fault? Or was it a mistake for Democrats to distance themselves from him? Given this collapse of the Democratic, base, the finger-pointing has already begun. Was it Obama’s fault? “The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” Harry Reid chief of staff David Krone told the Washington Post. “What else more is there to say?... I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.” Then again, what was the Democratic message other than wedge politics? .On the other hand, the Monday morning quarterbacking -- or rather, the Wednesday morning strategizing -- could argue that Democrats helped make Obama an even bigger political pariah by distancing themselves from him, more so than we ever saw Republicans run away from George W. Bush in 2006 (who had a lower approval rating back then). Individually, it made sense for certain Democrats (especially those in red states) to avoid Obama like the plague. But as we wrote last week, that only created a vicious cycle. Republican candidate: “Obama stinks!” Democratic candidate: “I agree” or “I’m not going to tell you I voted for him.” Voter: “Obama must really stink.” And so on. Remember, a house divided never stands. Yes, Democrats rightly cringed when Obama told voters (often African Americans and other key parts of his base) that his policies were on the ballot and that these red-state Democrats backed his agenda. But to encourage these Obama voters to support Democratic candidates, what else was the president going to say? The negative feedback loop ultimately only created problems for Democrats instead of solving them. Of course, Harry Reid’s strategy of protecting Democratic senators from tough votes only helped reinforce the most powerful talking point Republicans had in Senate races, “Sen. X voted with Obama 90-something percent of the time.”

Obama stuck between a rock and hard place on immigration

Also, in retrospect, Senate Democrats’ insistence that Obama delay his immigration announcement didn’t help with Latino voters in Colorado or Florida (the Latino electorate in Florida decreased from 17% in 2012 to 13% in 2014, which was probably the difference in Crist winning vs. losing). And now the White House is in a TOUGH spot: After last night’s election results, does Obama go ahead and issue his executive action on immigration and start a war with the GOP? Or does he put it off to find areas to work with Republicans, which only will alienate Latino voters? Pick your poison. Given the current situation, we think the White House wishes it went ahead and issued that executive action back in the summer.

Did Democrats give up too soon on the minimum wage?

Here’s more Monday morning quarterbacking: Should Democrats have emphasized the minimum wage more than they ended up doing? Guess what passed last night. Politico: “The passage of minimum wage ballot initiatives in three red-leaning states — Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — and an expected victory in Alaska provided some rare good news to Democrats in desperate need of some.” Remember, Obama’s 2014 State of the Union laid out an economic framework to help out vulnerable Democrats. And it turns out, a major part of that framework -- increasing the minimum wage -- played well with voters last night.

Sizing up the congressional leaders

Senate Majority Leader-to-be Mitch McConnell is going to have more flexibility to govern if the GOP is sitting on 53 or 54 senators (if the GOP wins Alaska and Louisiana in December). Meanwhile, it’s being reported that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will run for minority leader without any apparent opposition. But will there be any public calls for Reid to consider hanging it up -- either by relinquishing his leadership post or deciding not to run 2016? And you might see similar questions for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with Democrats probably not taking back the House majority until 2020 at the earliest. Consider this: Democrats are supposed to be the party of younger voters, but their congressional leaders are the 74-year-old Reid, the 74-year-old Pelosi, the 75-year-old Steny Hoyer, and the 74-year-old James Clyburn. And the Democratic Party’s image problems don’t end there. Just look at the new class of Republicans who have been elected. They are younger and they are diverse. It makes the Democratic Party’s faces look stale in comparison. The next generation of leaders is establishing itself in the Republican Party. Where are the next generation of Democratic leaders. Will 2016 really see the three Democrats leading the party as Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton? The Democratic Party as a freshness issue… BIG time.

The start to the 2016 campaign begins -- now

Next, we come to 2016, which essentially begins today. (Had the battle for Senate control extended until December or January, that would have delayed the presidential until early 2015.) And here’s our biggest takeaway: You’re going to see a demoralized Democratic Party heading into next year. Make no mistake: Last night’s shellacking is going to rattle Democrats. What happened to that blue firewall? Was focusing on abortion rights a mistake in Colorado? What about that vaunted GOTV operation? Yes, many Democrats will comfort themselves by saying, “Well, at least we have Hillary Clinton waiting in the wings.” But first, Democrats are going to have to heal their wounds from a more bruising cycle than ANY OF THEM probably expected. Four of the last 6 6-year itch elections have foreshadowed presidential victories for the “out” party two years later. See 1958 and 1960; 1966 and 1968; 1974 and 1976; 2006 and 2008. And arguably 1998’s surprise Dem showing foreshadowed the 2000 tie. So you could argue 5 of the last 6 six year itch elections have foreshadowed the following presidential.

Christie’s great night

We’ve said before that 2014 has been a very unkind year for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (think Bridge-gate and the credit downgrades in the state). But last night was a GREAT night for the governor, who’s head of the Republican Governors Association. The RGA gained four gubernatorial seats, and they held on to all but one of their endangered governors (Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett being the lone exception).

The Democrats’ silver lining

We’ll end on one silver lining for Democrats: Gwen Graham -- daughter of former Sen/Gov. Bob Graham -- winning a contested congressional seat in Florida, which sets her up to run for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat in 2016. Now Democrats have to find more Gwen Grahams to stock up for the next cycle two years from now.

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