The 2014 midterm elections were a referendum on Barack Obama’s performance as president. He has done a bad job, and most Americans know it. Accordingly, the American people used the only means they had of making good their disapproval: They elected Republicans.
The president’s standing in the states with major Senate battles was uniformly terrible. The media conducted exit polls for 10 of the 11 Senate races where the GOP won or nearly won Democratic-held seats. Obama’s job approval ranged from 23 percent in West Virginia to 43 percent in New Hampshire, with an average of just 37 percent. Republicans won on average 72 percent of the anti-Obama vote, and in most states 80 percent.
It helped that Republicans challenging Democratic Senate incumbents made few gaffes, unlike several candidates in 2010 and 2012 whose blunders ceded winnable seats to Democrats. The only place where candidate quality seems to have damaged a Republican challenger was New Hampshire, where 52 percent of voters said Scott Brown, from neighboring Massachusetts, had not lived in the state long enough. Those voters went for Jeanne Shaheen by 89-10 percent. As for Virginia, Ed Gillespie displayed no obvious weaknesses and took bold policy positions on health care. But he was enormously outspent, and the national party failed to see the potential for a pickup before it was too late.
At this writing, ballots are still being counted in Alaska, and Louisiana will hold a runoff in December. But it appears the Republicans, when all is said and done, will have picked up 9 Senate seats, giving them a majority of 54-45.
This Senate majority will be as large as the one seated in 1995, but much more conservative. That year, the Republican caucus included many nominal, moderate, or otherwise unreliable Republicans, notably John Chafee of Rhode Island, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. Some such Republicans remain—Frank Murkowski was succeeded by Lisa Murkowski—but their numbers have shrunk. My informal count has them declining from about 15 in 1994 to less than half a dozen today. The group of solid conservatives, meanwhile, has grown. The Senate already had many such members, like Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Tim Scott. But now they are set to be joined by Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, and Joni Ernst. My back of the envelope calculations suggest that the number of solid conservative senators has risen from about a dozen in 1995 to 20 or so today.
As for the House, ballots are still being counted, but Republicans should exceed their high-water mark there since the Great Depression. According to exit polls, they will have done so by winning about the same share of the vote they carried in 2010. The reality for Democrats in the House is that a majority is probably foreclosed to them until 2019 at the earliest. Neither party’s presidential nominee has had much in the way of coattails when running for a third consecutive term. So even if the Democrat wins the White House in two years, the GOP is strongly favored to keep the House through the 2016 elections.
The races for governors’ mansions provided some real drama. Surprising Republican pickups in Illinois and Maryland and surprising holds in Florida, Kansas, and Maine gave Republicans a slight edge. But in state legislatures, Democrats were eviscerated. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that Democrats will hold fewer state legislative seats than at any time in nearly a century. Among GOP highlights: Republicans picked up the state house in West Virginia and tied the state senate; they won both chambers of the Nevada legislature; they won the New Hampshire and Minnesota houses; and they reclaimed the New York senate.
What do these results tell us about 2016? Pundits note that a midterm blowout for the out party often fails to yield a big victory two years later (the Democratic sweep of 1986, for instance, was followed by the Republican triumph of 1988). Similarly, a good showing by the incumbent party in a midterm is no guarantee the party will hold the White House in 24 months (thus, Democrats held the line in 1978, two years before Jimmy Carter was ridden out on a rail; George W. Bush defeated Al Gore just two years after Democrats defied historical norms to pick up House seats in 1998).
Moreover, Democrats rightly note that the electorate will be different in 2016. It will be younger and less white. Can Republicans win it? The answer is yes, but they have to improve their performance with key voting blocs.