“We crushed the Democratic Party. We annihilated Battleground Texas, and we completely wiped out their statewide ticket.”
-Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri
In the November 4, 2014 midterms, the Republican Party swept to power in the Senate and retained its solid hold on the House of Representatives. Even seasoned observers didn’t expect the margin of victory and races which flipped to Republicans, such as North Carolina and Colorado. Democrats lost in droves to the executioner’s ax of an angry electorate. But why and how did it happen?
Unemployment continues to slide to pre-recession levels, GDP growth is well in the black, and more Americans are receiving social services in the midst of strong economic performance. Why did so many Americans express dissatisfaction with the President and the Democratic Party with these objective conditions? Three possible explanations account for this seeming contradiction.
1. Structure of 2014 Midterms: Republicans had a high probability of taking the Senate to start, with a preponderance of red states voting for Senate candidates: read Kansas, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and more. Furthermore, Democratic incumbents were running in these red states, such as Mark Pryor in Arkansas. These were the seats which went up for election in 2008, when the Obama campaign apparatus and groundswell of support were at their crest.
Another structural aspect of elections is access and composition of the electorate. Midterm electorates are consistently wealthier and whiter than presidential election years, and have overall lower turnouts. Incumbent parties also suffer in midterm years, with the president’s party losing legislative ground in 40 of the last 43 midterms. Combine a favorable map with a favorable electorate and Republicans came in with a decisive edge. Yet this demographic explanation does not cover the victory of GOP candidates in blue states such as Cory Gardner in Colorado.
2. Republican Campaign Strategy: Political observers by now are used to Republican gaffes and Democrats reaping the political capital of such mistakes. Yet 2014 was free of the rhetoric of Sharron Angles, Todd Akins and Michelle Bachmanns, and this was no coincidence. Even Texas, despite vulnerable statewide candidates, had its GOP candidates lie low and ride the tide of existing support in the state through a respectable ground game to counter the Battleground Texas staff sharing connections with President Obama’s campaign staff. The GOP steered away from controversial social issues and kept a steady drumbeat linking Democrats to the President and his handling of issues such as Ebola, ISIS and healthcare.
The Republican discipline was no accident, with grooming of candidates and strict guidelines suggested by national Republican staff. The era of Democratic grassroots superiority and Republican fumbling over social issues such as abortion or forgetting Cabinet-level positions during debates (thanks, Rick Perry) may just be over. Republican leadership also seemed to reverse the Tea Party push to identify conservative purists by purging those very purists from the ranks of candidates. The Chris McDaniel-Thad Cochran saga in Mississippi illustrates this perfectly. I highly recommend reading more on this soap opera of a primary election.
3. American Social Trends: While a favorable map and a well-run national campaign pushed Republicans over the threshold to legislative control, the contours of American society and consumption of political information also could run favorably in the background. The media exercises increasing influence over political opinion — or perhaps political opinion has locked in media influence — such that almost 90% of consistent conservatives watch Fox News every week, dramatically outpacing the viewing habits of any other ideological category.
The emotions of politics for voters can create and reinforce attitudes, bringing about a sense of self-righteousness and pride. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote as much in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Perhaps this is the great tragedy of our politics today, that we are so angry about it, and it affects how we think. Anger and being a recipient of it makes us unhappier and unhealthier over time. Yet Americans continue to either choose or be targeted by media outlets which create and sustain anger.
With a new era of legislative control by Republicans dawns, the GOP majority could have staying power. Mitch McConnell has promised to govern responsibly, but never count Ted Cruz out. Never count out defiant, angry voters and the politicians they support. Perhaps this defiance is the answer to the midterm mystery.