With the dust still settling around the 2014 midterms and so much bloviating commentary inundating us as every pundit in the land tries to interpret the meaning of the elections, we might step back for a moment and try to analyze some of the reasons for this latest Republican romp. I offer below some mercifully brief thoughts about the elections broken down into a few broad categories.
Almost any junior high school history or politics teacher can tell you that throughout American history the party in power normally loses seats in midterm elections (unless something very weird is happening). The so-called political geniuses among President Barack Obama's brain trust appear to have been clueless going into 2010 and again (after winning reelection) in 2014. Midterms are base elections and rather than give the Democratic base something it could really sink its teeth into the Obama people limped into both midterms with milquetoast accomplishments and "messaging" that couldn't rally a wet noodle. Sometimes losing a tough fight can energize a party's base just as much as winning. But the Democrats after accommodating Wall Street and corporate education "reformers" and the military-industrial complex seemed to have lost any real fight in them. In 2010, the Democrats failed to stand up to the big banks like the public wanted or even give a forthright defense of the new health care law. By 2014 the base felt so let down it didn't bother to show up.
Most Americans feel it in their bones that none of the so-called gains of the "recovery" have trickled down to their pocket books. There's a widespread sense of economic malaise and stagnation. Trumpeting statistics about how wonderful a 6 percent unemployment rate is or how terrific it is to see the stock market reach a 17,000 Dow simply doesn't resonate. Working people know they're working harder and longer hours these days just to get by. Any real economic "gains" since the worst days of the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 or 2 percent of households. The 700,000 or so public sector jobs that Wall Street destroyed in 2008-09 have been largely replaced by McJobs. That's why even Republican voters in Nebraska and Arkansas and other states chose to increase the minimum wage showing that even the Chamber of Commerce types can see that putting a little more money in the pockets of the working poor might generate a few more customers for their vaunted private sector establishments like hair salons or coffee shops. This economy blows and presidents (and their parties) more often than not take the blame.
Even the most cursory glance at some of the states that Democrats had to win in order to hold the Senate majority revealed a tough road ahead. Blue Dog Democrats (or DINOs) like Mark Pryor in Arkansas or Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Mary Landrieu in Louisiana are not the best representatives of what constitutes the Democratic base. And in Iowa, South Dakota, and Montana the retirements of old-school Democrats like Tom Harkin, Tim Johnson, and Max Baucus, who even the states' residents couldn't remember when they were first elected, created a huge opening for Republicans in these rural states. Outside SuperPAC money goes a long way in these states. If the Koch Brothers drop a million or two million dollars in a state like South Dakota or Montana they get a lot of bang for their buck. The states that were in play in 2014 due to retirements, a restless electorate, and low turnout were all states one would expect Democrats to do poorly in.
The electorate that votes in midterm elections is older and whiter and looks more like the viewership of The O'Reilly Factor than anything that accurately reflects the true racial and ethnic diversity of this country. This trend held true in 2010 and 2014, in part, because the Democratic establishment failed to give non-white and youthful voters anything substantive that might energize them.
Anyone who sees the recent successes in the courts and at the ballot box legalizing gay marriage or the use of marijuana as indicators that the "culture wars" of the last thirty years have receded is in store for a big surprise. In both the 2010 and 2014 midterms where Republicans succeeded fabulously most GOP candidates did not shy away from taking strong and open stands against abortion rights. Brent Bozell of ForAmerica and Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots were all instrumental in getting the Christian faithful to the polls and they're expecting congressional action on cultural issues. It should come as no surprise that the 113th Congress spent oodles of time passing anti-abortion bills knowing they had no chance of clearing the Senate. Now that they have the Senate too, we'll see a slew of bills attacking women's reproductive rights. Just because they failed to get personhood laws passed in Colorado and North Dakota this time around doesn't mean that the culture warriors won't take them up in the 114th Congress. These foot soldiers among social conservatives who lick the envelopes and knock on doors and give money to anti-choice Republican candidates have high expectations that their hard work will be rewarded by policy.
Some surveys indicate that as many as 37 percent of 2014 voters couldn't tell pollsters which party controlled Congress, but they all knew President Obama was the "true source" of what's wrong with Washington. Congressional leadership is diffuse; few people even know who John Boehner is or anything about the Senate filibuster or Mitch McConnell's obstructionism. But Obama is front and center because the presidency is a highly personalized office. Obama's face is on the front page of the newspapers a lot. The Republicans have even manufactured a narrative that it was Obama who shut down the government, not them. Chief executives, especially charismatic leaders with a bit of a cult of personality surrounding them are easily vilified and blamed for everything that's going wrong, whereas the congressional leaders can blend into the background. Mitch McConnell and Reince Priebus and Karl Rove understand this psychological phenomenon. They knew they could duck responsibility for their own obstructionism. It's relatively easy to focus people's wrath on one famous individual. It's the same phenomenon that sometimes toppled highly personalized dictatorships like Ferdinand Marcos or Anastocio Somoza. Toss in some visually powerful ads scaring the crap out of people with Ebola and ISIS and blaming Obama for their fears and anxieties and the emotional equation is complete.