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The Midterms Were Even Worse Than They Looked

The left still hasn't figured out how to get Obama's coalition to vote when Obama's not on the ballot.

by Grace Wyler
Nov 6 2014, 1:00am

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

​By now, you are probably aware that Democrats got crushed in last night's midterm elections. As expected, ​Republicans won back control of the Senate, pulling through in nearly every tight race across the country, including swing states like Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, and expanded their majority in the House of Representatives. Any doubt as to whether this year's midterms would be a "wave" election for the GOP came crashing down around midnight, when it became clear that Democrats were going to fare even worse in 2014 than they did in the Tea Party storm surge of 2010.

It was even worse in the states, where the GOP won key governor's posts and expanded on legislative majorities the party has been building since 2010. Incumbent Republican governors pulled through in virtually every contested race (with the exception of Pennsylvania), beating back aggressive Democratic challenges in key swing states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The GOP even pulled off upsets in Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts—deep blue states where the GOP has no business winning. After last night, Republicans control 31 of 50 governor's positions in the country, as well as 64 out of 98 state legislative chambers—an unprecedented number not seen since the Great Depression.

On Wednesday, the finger pointing had already begun, with most of the blame falling squarely on President Barack Obama and the White House. That makes sense. Republicans had always tried to make the 2014 midterms a referendum on the president, and in the end, they succeeded. The administration did little to counter the GOP's narrative, ricocheting from crisis to crisis—the botched Obamacare website, the VA scandal, the border crisis, ISIS, Ebola—while Obama's approval ratings sunk lower and lower.

"The White House failed to define any agenda for voters in 2014," the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a leading liberal group, said in a statement after the election. ""Elizabeth Warren was the most popular campaigner in 2014 for a reason: Her clear economic-populist message of reforming Wall Street, reducing student debt, and expanding Social Security benefits is popular everywhere. Red, purple, and blue states."

Even Obama seemed a little remorseful Wednesday. "As president I have a unique responsibility to make this town work," he said in a press appearance. "So, to all of those that voted, I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters that chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too."

But while Obama certainly didn't help his party, a closer look at the midterm results shows that Democrats' problems are much bigger than a lame-duck president with one foot out the door. For one thing, Republicans seemed to have gotten their shit together. Unlike in 2010, when the Tea Party uprising took the Establishment GOP by surprise, the party was very much in control of its midterm races in 2014. In a shift from recent elections, Republican leaders rallied early and aggressively to beat back primary challenges, protect embattled incumbents, and weed out fringey candidates who might fuck up their Senate chances by saying weird things about rape or poor people. 

The efforts paid off: Instead of wild-eyed wingnuts, the party wound up with a pool of presentable candidates that while all very conservative, were also, crucially, not lunatics. And in the process, the GOP managed to loosen the shackles of the Tea Party, and soften its message to appeal to a broader swath of voters outside of its conservative base.

In the meantime, ​Democrats struggled to resonate with voters, falling back on its previously effective strategy of casting its Republican opponents as extremist whackjobs who want to wage war on women on poor people. But in the absence of conservative caricatures like Mitt Romney and Todd Akin, the arguments backfired. In Colorado, for example, incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall lost to his Republican challenger after spending most of the campaign talking about abortion. Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley's attempts to color his opponent Joni Ernst as the next Sarah Palin came off as supercilious, and only made Ernst more folksy and sympathetic.

Nowhere was Democratic hubris more apparent than in Texas' gubernatorial race, where liberal darling Wendy Davis lost in a landslide Tuesday, after running a remarkably terrible campaign focused mostly on abortion and other social issues. Davis was always a long shot, but the magnitude of her defeat—she lost among women, as well as Hispanic men—effectively killed the liberal fantasy of taking over Texas, and further proved that calling your Republican opponent crazy is not a campaign strategy unless it's true.

Democrats have taken heart in the fact that voters who turned out for the midterm election were generally older and whiter, while the coalition of young, urban, and minority voters that elected Obama mostly stayed home. The hope, of course, is that these liberal voters will show up again to vote for Democrats in 2016. But as races in Texas and other states showed on Tuesday, Republicans are making baby steps in their outreach to minorities, particularly Hispanic voters. And Democrats has yet to figure out a way to turn out Obama's coalition when the man himself is not on the ticket.

All of this underscores fundamental weaknesses for the left going into 2016. Without Obama or Republican fuckups to fall back on, Democratic candidates, and the party's liberal message, collapsed. With the 2016 presidential campaign officially underway as of Wednesday, the party is going to have to figure out a new message fast—a prospect that will become increasingly difficult as Republicans use their new power to tarnish and weaken their opponents. 

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