WASHINGTON, November 9, 2014 – The meaning of the 2014 elections, the extent of the Republican mandate, and the failures of the Democrats have been widely discussed since Tuesday. The conclusions drawn are generally self-serving, hence almost certainly wrong.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., the current Democratic National Committee chief, has admitted, “our party has a problem.” The DNC plans to look at messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts, apparently convinced that their problem is that they’re misunderstood. Voters, not realizing that GDP and the stock market are up, failed to appreciate how good they have it, hence voted against their own interests to put Republicans in charge of the Senate and expand their control of the House.
Democrats have argued that Republicans didn’t win a mandate, and that Republicans won by moving to the left, supporting Democratic policies while Democrats ran from them. That is a creative interpretation of what happened on Tuesday. Republicans, who ran widely against Obamacare, against immigration amnesty, and against President Obama, might be forgiven for believing that they have a mandate to cut back Obamacare (they can vote to repeal, but the President will veto any such measure and his veto will stand), block White House attempts turn illegal immigrants into legal residents, and to generally hold Obama’s feet to the fire.
How far the Republican mandate goes may depend on how far Republicans are willing to take it. And that point rests on something that isn’t far from anyone’s mind: Election 2016.
The electoral map, which was favorable to Republicans this year, will be much less favorable in 2016, according to the conventional wisdom. Republicans threw out Democratic senators in red states – Arkansas, probably Louisiana, South Dakota – and in a couple of purple states – Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa. They failed in other swing states, notably New Hampshire, and in blue states like Minnesota, Oregon and Illinois. In 2016, most of the contested Senate seats are now held by Republicans, and some of them are in blue states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The color of a state in a presidential election does not determine congressional outcomes. Even the bluest state can elect a Republican, and red states elect Democrats. The candidate matters, and matters a lot. So does the message – the real message, not the “messaging.”
Even with an Obama win in 2012, the GOP could have done better in the Senate. Todd Akin lost a Senate race in Missouri that a competent Republican candidate would have won. His remarks about “legitimate rape” exploded in his face and caused collateral damage to the GOP. Richard Mourdock threw victory away in Indiana when he talked about pregnancy resulting from rape as “something God intended.”
Inept candidates have cost the GOP dearly in recent years. The GOP had a good year in 2010, but not as good as it should have been. Harry Reid would have gone down to defeat in Nevada had God not blessed him with Sharron Angle. Christine O’Donnell was a longer shot in Delaware, but she traded Tea Party tax principles for evolution and was laughably “not a witch.” Like Mourdock and Akin, Angle and O’Donnell were both embarrassments to the GOP brand.
In 2014, the GOP was disciplined. It had a clear focus, a clear message, and candidates who were checked for loose screws and a propensity to idiot utterances. This discipline and focus were new to the GOP since the Bush Administration, and they are the most significant development to come out of this election.
That this wasn’t the GOP of Mourdock and Angle was made clear in Mississippi. Thad Cochran, hardly a name to excite conservatives, was challenged by Tea Party Republican Chris McDaniel. Were McDaniel a better candidate, the challenge to Cochran would have been healthy in a state where the Republican candidate was almost sure to win.
But McDaniel had more mouth than good sense. His talk of “mamacitas” and “boobies” got the attention of the GOP establishment, which knew there was a lot more where that came from. Party elders were determined that he not be used by Democrats as Akin was, as the face of the GOP.
In Kansas, Pat Roberts was in deep trouble by the end of summer. After 18 years in the Senate, he was nearly a cipher in his own state. He had almost no money in his campaign fund, no TV ads, and a supposedly independent opponent who threated to win in one of the reddest states in the country. Former Kansas Senator Bob Dole took a look at what was going on and yelled bloody murder to GOP leadership.
Roberts was pulled out of the fire by a serious, focused effort from the Party. In earlier election cycles, they might not have read Roberts the riot act and forced him to reorganize his campaign as they did. But the GOP this year was a party determined not to repeat the unforced errors of previous cycles.
Across the country, Republicans ran solid candidates. They didn’t all win, but most did. In the process, the Party built its bench for future presidential campaigns, while the Democrats saw their bench thinned. Republicans paid attention to basics in a way they haven’t in years.
Looking forward to 2016, the Republicans are facing a challenge. But it isn’t as imposing a challenge as the Democrats and some Republicans believe. By building a solid campaign this year, the GOP made it harder for Democrats to take the Senate in 2016. If Louisiana and Alaska turn out as expected, Democrats will have to take five Senate seats in 2016 to take back the Senate. They can do it, but it won’t be a cake walk. If Republicans maintain their new-found sense of discipline (not guaranteed in a party that shows a propensity for self-destruction), it will be a serious challenge.
What is the GOP mandate? A mandate is what you can make of it. Political power comes not just from office, but from a careful strategy to exercise power and its focused use. Congress can take back power from the president, or it can lose power. That’s up to them. But their performance in this election tells us that the Republicans can’t be counted down and out, and that Congress might yet make itself relevant.