THE BRIEFING: VOLUME II, ISSUE 39
To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso
This week: Conservative Intel post-election analysis, part one.
It’s Veterans Day:
If you can read this, thank a teacher.
If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier.
If you are grateful for your right to vote last Tuesday, thank a veteran today.
Midterm Lessons: This election was like 2010, except that it was a broader and deeper victory for Republicans than that earlier wave. It was much bigger than we — or really anyone but the wildest optimists — had anticipated.
In the House, Republicans took all of the seats they were easily expected to take; they also took several that were not expected. Despite the losses of three of their own members — one of which was a certainty from the beginning, and one of which developed as a late surprise — Republicans appear certain to finish the cycle with a net gain of at least 12 seats, with an upper limit of 17. That may not sound like much in the abstract, but consider that the GOP had already nearly maxed out the number of winnable districts in the House under the current set of state maps. This year, they managed to gain ground where gains would have seemed difficult to imagine two years ago.
And of course, the big story is the U.S. Senate. Republicans successfully defended all of their own seats, avoiding a runoff in Georgia, fending off a well-funded independent challenge in Kansas, and making it look easy in Kentucky.
They allso picked up Democratic Senate seats in West Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota, Montana, and Arkansas. Unless a miracle occurs and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich wins 67 percent of the absentee ballots (which will be tallied starting Nov. 19), they will also pick up a seat in Alaska. And on December 6, Louisiana voters are highly likely to hand them yet another seat, and yet another scalp — that of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D. That would bring the total Senate gains to nine — an incredible gain that clinches the majority with some room to breathe.
This all comes just two years after the GOP had been written off for dead after Mitt Romney lost a very winnable race for president.
Here are the seven most important things to know about this election:
1. Scott Walker’s win: This was potentially the most important outcome of the night. We have previously called Walker the most underrated potential 2016 presidential candidate. He only improved his credentials for that slot with his third convincing statewide victory in purple Wisconsin in four years.
Walker fits the bill well for 2016 for a number of reasons.
a. First, he has proven repeatedly in the arena that he possesses all the characteristics of a good political candidate – speaking skills, intelligence, discipline, media savvy, reliable principles, and other basics like that.
b. Second, Walker is uniquely positioned as a potential consensus nominee. He bridges the divide in the GOP civil war in a way few other candidates could. Conservatives on the national level love him already for the enormous and nationally publicized fight he had (and won) against his state’s public employee unions. They like him because he went big after winning the governorship, taking on his state’s unions and fixing its budget problems. Meanwhile, the party establishment would happily embrace him – he and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus are close.
c. Third, Walker is easier than some other candidates to protect from certain attacks. Most notably, and in contrast to several potential rivals, he was spared the pitfall of the Obamacare condundrum that many other Republican governors have faced, because Wisconsin had expanded its Medicaid program more than a decade earlier beyond the ACA’s parameters. This was pure luck for Walker. It meant he did not have to face the choice of either taking the easy way out by expanding (as John Kasich did in Ohio or Chris Christie in New Jersey), nor will he be attacked for depriving the poor of health insurance, as someone like Rick Perry surely would. Also, in primaries, Walker doesn’t have to pander to the base excessively – something that has damaged other Republican candidates in the past.
d. Finally, Walker is likely to be acceptable or even the second choice for most GOP primary voters who back other candidates. Backers of other conservative and establishment candidates are likely to view him as an acceptable alternative, especially if the goal is to unite around someone in order to block a more moderate candidate.
2. Setback for Rand Paul: If you like, you can add this to the reasons Walker has a decent shot at the GOP nomination in 2016. Republicans failed to take control of the Kentucky State House, coming up three seats short. This means They will not be able to change the law that prevents Paul from running for president and for re-election at the same time in 2016. Were he to run for Senate, he would be the clear favorite to win, but he would have to forfeit Kentucky’s eight electoral votes. Given the difficult Senate map in 2016 and the fact that it is still unknown who will be governor of Kentucky when that election occurs, it is hard to see how Paul can compete at all.
Paul is looking for a way around this, but it certainly complicates his life. (One possible solution: He could arrange for a close friend to be on the ballot in his own home state, whose pledged electors would back him in the Electoral College.) Paul would bring to the presidential field a brand of libertarian-conservative fusion that has lately enjoyed something of a revival, but he has said he is committed to running for re-election.
3. No one but Hillary. Wave elections have lasting ramifications for both the winning and the losing party. As Republicans discovered after 2006, and again after 2008, one consequence is a total clearing of the party’s bench. Multiple GOP presidential aspirants were wiped out in 2006 — Sen. George Allen, R-Va., for example. In like manner, this election cleared the Democrats’ benches of most viable presidential contenders. Included among the casualties are all of the losers in the Senate, as well as probably Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose state went Republican in the most unlikely manner (more on this below).
Then again, it’s not as if Democrats are looking forward to a robust primary season with multiple viable candidates. A far more realistic way of describing their situation is that they have only one and possibly two candidates who have any chance at all — Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Both have downsides, but it’s worth looking at why Democrats must nominate one of them, instead of, say, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or some other ambitious white male Democrat.
One lesson that the 2010 and 2014 midterms, as well as the 2009 and 2013 gubernatorial by-elections have taught us, is that the Obama coalition only comes out for Obama. Whether Obama campaigns for other Democrats or merely stays in the background, it doesn’t work. Obama is only effective when his name is printed on the ballot and he has a billion dollar marketing campaign supporting him.
As Jim Messina and David Plouffe have noted, Obama’s turnout machine is unique to him and does not simply transfer to another Democratic candidate. Future Democratic nominees cannot count on young or black voters to turn out in similar numbers or to give similar margins (90 point margins among blacks, especially) to any other Democrat. It just won’t happen. A hypothetical Cuomo nomination, for example, would likely turn the political clock back to 2004, where Democrats still faced a serious disadvantage in presidential races. Many rank-and-file Democrats are in denial about this Obama dependency — they can’t win Midterms with him, they can’t win presidential elections without him. But the party’s leading lights are not blinded to this fact..
And so in 2016, Democrats need a new novelty that can reproduce something like what Obama did — a new coalition that can generate a similar structural advantage. The possibility of electing the first female president could generate such a novelty — perhaps cutting into the white female vote, which still goes Republican, and driving up turnout among unmarried women, who vote Democratic. This is why Hillary, despite having grave and very basic weaknesses as a candidate (she is one of the worst public speakers in politics, for example), is by far their best shot. Warren is probably too far to the left, but she would have a much better chance in a general election than Joe Biden or other Democrats who would attract a more traditional Democratic vote and lose, as John Kerry did in 2004.
4. Realignment of Coal Country: The media like to focus on states that seem to be headed in a more Democratic direction — like Texas (oh, maybe not!) — but not all states are trending Blue. In fact, several have been drifting the other way. To name a few examples, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee were all swing states — some of them Democratic-leaning ones — just over a decade ago. Today, they are all Red in presidential years, and some (although not yet Kentucky) on the local level as well.
The Obama administration’s so-called “war on coal” has been pushing still more states in that direction, and also counterbalancing the Blue-ing of other states. The emerging danger for Democrats seems to be that they face new political dangers anywhere sources of energy are discovered. Republican margins have been quietly improving in several areas (including certain areas of Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania) due to fracking and Democrats’ obstacles to it.
And of course, the old source of energy King Coal, still plays a big role as well. Races in four important states were subtly or no-so-subtly affected by the “war on coal” – Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
a. Between 1999 and last week, Democrats were the dominant party in West Virginia, in much the same way they were in most Southern states two decades ago. Their state party survived by distancing itself and its candidates from the “amnesty, acid, abortion” platform of the social Left. But this charade could only continue for so long.
West Virginia Democrats simply collapsed last Tuesday, losing the last of the three U.S. House seats they once possessed, an open U.S. Senate seat, and both Houses of the state legislature. In the state House, Republicans gained 15 seats and could still get up to five more, which would give them a two-thirds supermajority. The state Senate ended up tied, but flipped after a Democratic senator announced he would switch parties.
Obama’s anti-coal policies and his officials’ careless words are the immediate causes of all this, but it was a change long in the making.
b. In carrying Kentucky by an astounding 15 points – an inconceivable result just a month ago – Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carried the small, traditionally Democratic eastern coal counties in the state.
c. In Maryland, Larry Hogan pulled off the surprise upset of the decade when he incredibly won the governorship. Helping him were huge vote percentages (80, 76 and 74 percent) in the state’s three western counties, two of them major coal producing areas. These margins are significantly larger than the ones Bob Ehrlich, R, racked up while losing in 2010 – in Washington County, the most populous of the three, Hogan improved on Ehrlich’s margin of victory by 12,000 votes. This, along with strong showings in suburban Baltimore, Ann Arundel County, and the Eastern Shore, produced last Tuesday’s least-expected victory.
d. The only “big” race in Pennsylvania this year was for governor, and it was obvious far in advance that Democrat Tom Wolf would easily defeat Gov. Tom Corbett, R, whom we referred to in our last installment as a “dead duck.” However, even as Wolf won, the state’s increasingly Republican colors showed as the GOP gained several seats in both houses of the state legislature, several in rural natural gas and coal-producing areas.
5. State legislative massacre: Republicans gained nine or ten state legislative chambers, pending one outcome in Colorado. In addition to West Virginia, they staged an unexpected coup in Nevada by seizing both houses, and won the state House in New Mexico, Maine and Minnesota, as well as the Senate in New York and Washington.
When President Obama took office in January 2009, Democrats controlled 62 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. After this election, they will control only 30. And if you include Maryland, where they still possess the three-fifths majority required to override vetoes from Governor-Elect Hogan, Democrats only hold complete control of the legislative process in only 10 states.
Republicans now control 69 of the 99 chambers (including Nebraska’s theoretically non-partisan unicameral legislature), which is an all-time high for the GOP. They will hold complete control over 24 or 25 states, pending the outcome in Alaska, and including Missouri, where they hold a veto-proof majority.
In the age of Obama, Americans have turned to Republicans in local government. And in the age of post-2010 gridlock the states have been the only real source of policy innovation. So expect to see more structural reforms — perhaps more right-to-work laws, more Walker-like reforms, more Wendy Davis abortion bills. Also expect to see fewer strong candidates for the U.S. House, because even at its lowest level, the Democratic farm team took a huge hit in this election.
6. Don’t blame gerrymandering. Yes, partisan redistricting explains why maps in some states (Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan) were and remained slanted toward one party or the other. But Republicans did not draw the maps in most of the states where they gained or held House seats or state legislative chambers last week. That includes West Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, Arkansas (which went Republican on a Democrat-drawn map in 2012), Arizona, Washington State, Nevada, and Colorado, where they might take the state Senate.
Even in Texas, where Republicans picked up a U.S. House seat against one of the Democrats’ rising-star politicians, the map of the district was court-drawn. In Maine, Republicans did draw the map, but it was not an especially partisan map, nor could it be. Democrats erred by nominating someone too socially liberal for the same district that Democrat Mike Michaud — a moderate who lost for governor last Tuesday — had safely held for 12 years.
7. Who’s the ‘obstructionist’ now? The Republicans’ capture of the U.S. Senate reverses the dynamic of the situation in Washington.
President Obama has complained endlessly since 2010 about the obstruction of his agenda. Now he and Senate Democrats will be the obstructionists. What happens next is that Republicans will try to pass bills. If Senate Democrats are willing to take the heat and spare Obama the embarrassment of having to veto those bills, they will have to filibuster. In cases where they aren’t willing to filibuster, Obama will have to veto. It’s as simple as that.
The voters resoundingly rejected the Obama administration’s narrative that everything would be fixed if Republicans would only stop obstructing his agenda. They gave Republicans the reins and the ability to set the agenda from now on.
This means Obama is no longer in charge. He can still get away with many things as president, including re-starting the Iraq War and issuing executive orders of questionable legality. But he is a lame duck, irrelevant within his party from this moment forward and doomed to leave office with low approval ratings unless Republicans do something stupid like try to impeach him.
To make matters even worse, Senate Democrats are practically at war with Obama at the moment, with top aides deliberately attacking him on the record. They are upset with Obama’s refusal to meet their demands in helping them keep their majority during this cycle, and they are upset at him for reasserting his authority and influence in a way that hurt his party late in the campaign when he said that his own policies were on the ballot.
Despite his own rhetorical representations post election — evincing a striking unwillingness to recognize the result, and appealing to the attractive fantasy notion that the non-voters actually support him — Obama now lacks the leverage to dictate to Congress any more. For the first time since his own election, he will have to learn to work with Republican leaders if he wants to create a legacy beyond Obamacare.
This will be a challenge. Obama has never shown an aptitude for working with Republicans in Congress — in fact, after the 2010 election, no one in the White House even had John Boehner’s cell phone number to call and congratulate him on becoming Speaker.