/ 6 November 2014

Democrats in the deep end

Former Ekurhuleni metro police chief Robert McBride.
Former Ekurhuleni metro police chief Robert McBride.

President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party awoke on Wednesday to the political equivalent of a pounding hangover; a wave of defeats in the United States midterm elections more numerous and deeper than many Democrats had feared. They lost control of the Senate, with their Republican opponents on the verge of securing their largest majority in the House of Representatives since the 1940s.

Republicans gained at least seven Senate seats from Democrats, cementing their power base and boosting the party’s standing before the 2016 presidential elections.

On a night of few positives for Democrats, Republicans also outperformed them in most of the 36 governors’ races, clinching stunning victories in Democratic strongholds including Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois.

“This is ugly,” one top Democrat involved in the party’s election strategy told the Guardian in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “It is so much worse than we expected.”

The defeat is a major blow to the president, whose low approval ratings contributed heavily to his party’s defeat. Obama, an already isolated and unpopular president, must now see out his remaining two years in the White House with his Republican opponents controlling both branches of Congress.

The extent of the rout will also be a cause for concern for Hillary Clinton, the heir-apparent for the Democratic presidential nomination, who, along with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, stumped for several of the party’s Senate candidates who lost badly.

“The message from voters is clear: they want us to work together,” Harry Reid said in a statement, shortly after his demotion to Democratic minority leader. “I look forward to working with [the new Senate majority leader] Senator Mitch McConnell to get things done for the middle class.”

Republicans held on to all the seats they were defending, including close races in Georgia and Kansas.

Largest majority since Truman
In the House, Republicans already enjoyed a comfortable 233-199 majority. That lead has now been extended yet further, with the Republicans appearing on course to achieve a net gain of at least 12 seats, which would match or even exceed its largest majority since Harry Truman was president more than 60 years ago.

No result will be more unnerving for Democrats with an eye on the 2016 presidential race than Colorado, where the incumbent senator, Mark Udall, was comfortably dispatched by Republican Cory Gardner, a candidate Democrats tried and failed to paint as a right-wing extremist.

But in a pattern echoed by Republicans across the country, Gardner disavowed several previous policy stances and mounted a concerted effort to appeal to female and Latino voters.

Colorado is increasingly regarded as a bellwether in presidential elections, akin to Ohio; the percentage of voters who supported Obama in the state during the previous two presidential elections closely mirrored the nationwide breakdown.

Although midterm electorates look very different to presidential years, with lower turnout among young, minority and single-women voters, who tend to lean Democratic, there were worrying signs for the party.

There were defeats for Democrats, for example, in two other presidential swing states, Iowa and North Carolina. In Florida, another pivotal state for 2016, Democrat Charlie Crist narrowly failed to dislodge Republican governor Rick Scott.

A clutch of other Republican governors in Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan and Kansas also held on to their posts, despite divisive terms in office and fierce opposition that resulted in closely fought races.

As they engage in damage limitation, Democrats will in the next few days argue that their defeats in the House and Senate were expected and consistent with historical trends.

The party that controls the White House has only gained seats in a midterm election three times since 1862. And in contrast to Tuesday’s poll – where Democrats were defending an unusually large number of Senate seats – the party faces a much more favourable electoral map in 2016 when it will hope to regain seats in the upper chamber.

Over the past two decades the party of the incumbent president has lost, on average, four Senate seats during midterms. This year’s Democratic losses in the Senate are likely to be at least double that – a defeat compounded by the Republicans’ huge majority in the House. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

US midterm election results reflect lack of confidence in Obama’s presidency

In the end, there was no Republican wave. Indeed, it was barely a ripple. The Republicans won the United States midterm elections – but they didn’t win big. This election cycle included not only conservative-friendly states but also a disproportionate number of competitive states in which incumbent Democrats were stepping down.

Democrats have not won Louisiana or Arkansas in a presidential election since 1996, Georgia since 1992 and Alaska since 1964. A Democrat loss in these places is no great surprise. They were low-hanging fruit, and Republicans expended a lot of energy – and even more money – trying to get to it. Democrats fared better on Tuesday night than they did in 2010, two years after which Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney. States where Democrats unexpectedly struggled, such as Virginia or Florida, in the governor’s races, are swing states that are always in play.

This election was not a referendum on Obama. He is as much the president in New Hampshire, where Democrats won a Senate seat, as in Colorado and Georgia, where they lost.

But the midterms were a reflection on his presidency. His second term has lacked purpose and direction as it has lurched from crisis to crisis, many of which – the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, White House security – have been self-imposed. Where he has taken a stand, such as on gun control, Obama was unable to achieve legislative change. Where he has not taken a stand, as with immigration reform, he is being punished for it.

Polling shows the public actually backs Obama rather than Republicans on key issues, including mending rather than repealing Obamacare, immigration reform, increasing the minimum wage and a host of other issues. The problem is few people have any confidence that Obama will actually get any of them done.

Still, 2014 was hardly an endorsement of the Republicans. That they have now taken control of the Senate marks a substantial change in terms of leadership but not a particularly consequential one in terms of legislation. The Republicans will emerge with only a small majority, and if the party’s recent experience in running the House of Representatives is anything to go by, they are likely to be a dysfunctional caucus – and the president still holds a veto. Obama at times has proved himself in negotiations to possess the spine of a jellyfish, but unless he caves, nothing much more will get done this session than during the previous one.

Only this time the excuses will be different. Instead of Democrats blaming House Republicans for refusing to compromise, Republicans will blame Obama for thwarting the will of Congress. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” Mitch McConnell, the presumptive new Senate majority leader, said in his victory speech on Tuesday night. “I think I’ve shown that to be true at critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me the chance to show it again.”

According to a CNN exit poll, eight in 10 Americans disapprove of how Congress has been handling its job, whereas almost six in 10 are displeased with Obama. A full 44% have a positive view of Democrats; 40% have a positive view of Republicans. Americans have just elected the party they like the least to run the government body they least trust. Even greater cynicism is the most likely outcome.

On Tuesday night, the electorate wasn’t waving. It was drowning. – © Guardian News & Media 2014