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The VICE Guide to the Midterms

The 2014 midterm elections are on Tuesday, and no one cares. You should. So in the vague hope that you live in a state that allows same-day registration, here's the basic shit you need to know about.

by Grace Wyler
Nov 1 2014, 2:00pm

Illustrations by Joel Benjamin

The 2014 midterm elections are next week, and if you are like virtually everyone else in America, you give zero fucks.

I mean, say it out loud: "midterms." Even its name is an affront to American exceptionalism. But if you think that its inherent lameness excuses you from caring, you're wrong. On November 4, a small group of voters--mostly old, white ones--will determine the future of the country for the next two years. And you're going to have to live with their choices. Keep going down this road and sooner or later you're going to wake up and realize that Charlotte Clinton Santorum is president, your kids don't believe in evolution, and the street signs are in Chinese. And you'll only have yourself to blame.

So in the vague hope that you live in a state that allows same-day registration, here's the basic shit you need to know about:

THE SENATE
The biggest question of the 2014 campaign is whether Republicans can gain enough seats to win a majority in the Senate. If they do, the GOP will control both chambers of Congress, giving the party a lot more leverage to make Obama's life miserable for the last two years of his presidency. There's a good chance they can pull this off. Republicans have had the advantage all year, thanks in part to the fact that they are defending fewer seats than Democrats and in part to the fact that the kind of voters who show up at polls during midterms tend to be the kind that vote Republican. Most election forecasts give the GOP at least a 65 percent chance of netting the six seats it needs to take over the Senate majority.

Don't pay attention to those numbers. Math is boring and polls are usually wrong anyway. All you need to know is that this could be really fucking close. Ten Senate races are basically tied, according to RCP polling averages, which is really unusual this late in the campaign, and Republicans have struggled to break ahead in key states. So Democrats still have a shot of keeping the Senate majority, which would put us right back where we were before this whole sad circus started: A world where Obama and his party exist in a useless political hinterland.

Of course, even if the GOP takes the Senate, Congress will likely remain hopelessly deadlocked and it will still take a series of complicated backroom compromises to get any legislation passed that doesn't deal with the naming of post offices. But winning might make Republicans friendlier and more concerned about appearing to be the reasonable ones, and losing might make Obama willing make deals. Which would be a humiliating climax to a Presidency that was supposed to go down as one massive liberal exclamation mark.

WOMEN
As we mentioned before, voters are not interested in the midterm elections, like at all. Turnout is always lower for midterms than it is in presidential election years, especially among young people and minority voters. This is bad news for Democrats, especially in states like Iowa and Colorado, where Obama won in 2012 in large part on the strength of his campaign's ability to turn out these voters, and where Democrats are now locked in tight races with their Republican challengers. Now, if the party has any chance of hanging on to its Senate majority, it's going to need to turn out female voters.

In recent elections, Democrats haven't had a hard time winning over female voters, because Republican candidates kept saying weird things about rape. This year, though, the GOP seems to have managed to lock that up, and Democrats are the ones having problems with the ladies. In Colorado, incumbent Senator Mark Udall has devoted his entire campaign to relentless abortion fearmongering--he doesn't talk about anything else--and is now tied with his Republican opponent in the polls, probably because no one wants to talk about abortion ever. Alaska's Democratic Senator Mark Begich, who is also in a tight race, got himself into trouble earlier this week when he suggested that the state's female Republican Senator didn't want to be featured in his campaign ads because she didn't like how she looked in the picture. No dude, she just doesn't like you.

And in Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley has had trouble keeping up with his folksy female opponent Joni Ernst, a Sarah Palinesque Republican who spends a lot of time talking about how good she is at castrating hogs.

NATIONAL SECURITY
If there is one thing that the midterms have been about, it's fear. This is true of all elections, to some extent, but in 2014 a series of threats--Ebola, the Islamic State, Russia--have popped up to confirm to many Americans that Obama is moronically piloting the planet towards oblivion. Republicans, unsurprisingly, haven't been shy with the doomsday shit, cutting ads about the imminent threat of terrorism in Kansas and giving endless talk radio interviews about travel bans and border fences.

It's easy to dismiss this as more fearmongering from the party that led us into the war in Iraq and would have led us into one with Iran if we'd let them. Obviously, the Islamic State and Ebola don't pose the imminent threat to the homeland that some GOP candidates are suggesting. But when hooded Islamic militants are beheading American journalists in YouTube videos, nurses in Dallas are getting a rare and deadly African disease, and thousands of migrant children are literally banging on the gates of the southern border, it's hard to look on the bright side.

Now, with Obama's foreign policy approval ratings tanking, Republicans are eager to resume their place as the party of national security, a mantle that they lost during the Bush administration. Beyond 2014, this could have an enormous impact on the direction of American foreign policy, not least because it calls into question the signature accomplishments of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee in 2016.

THIRD PARTIES
In every election, there are always a handful of Socialists, street preachers, and Libertarian "entrepreneurs" who decide that it has fallen to them to shatter the two-party system and really start talking about "ideas" (usually legalizing prostitution and/or abolishing the United Nations). Most of the time these innovative outsiders are harmless, reminding us that if we want to we can vote for the guy with a boot on his head who thinks oral hygiene is our greatest national security threat, because this is Fucking America. But in 2014, where control of the Senate could be decided by just a handful of votes, these third-party people actually have a chance to really mess shit up.

Such is the case in North Carolina's Senate race, one of the closest--and most expensive--campaigns in the country, where incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is barely edging out Republican Thom Tillis, thanks in part to the candidacy of Libertarian pizza deliveryman Sean Haugh, who is currently polling at about 5 percent. A conservative group backed by the Koch brothers is now doing the only logical thing they can do in this situation: Persuade liberals to ditch Hagan and vote for Haugh, because he's the guy who smokes weed. (It took what, two years for legalization to make weed uncool?) 

A similar dynamic is playing out in Georgia, where Democrat Michelle Nunn has unexpectedly pulled ahead of her Republican opponent David Perdue. Georgia requires candidates to win 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, though, and polls show Libertarian paralegal Amanda Swafford could get just enough votes to prevent either Nunn or Perdue from winning outright.

But the big third-party story is in Kansas, where Independent candidate Greg Orman is poised to pull off a huge upset over Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who has been in Congress twice as long as you have been alive and doesn't even live in Kansas anymore. Republicans have sent in the whole motley crew--Rand Paul, Bob Dole, Sarah Palin, et al.--to prop up Roberts, but Orman holds a slight lead going into Election Day and could give Democrats the de facto win they need to keep control of the Senate.

THE ENVIRONMENT
If Republicans do win the Senate, their first order of business will be fucking with the Obama administration's plans to address climate change, and specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to regulate carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, fighting in a close race for reelection in Kentucky, has promised voters that if he is made Senate Majority Leader, he will do everything in his power to stop the EPA from implementing the new regulations. The Obama administration hasn't seemed concerned about this--it's not like they got anything through the Senate when Democrats are in charge, either--and has said it will continue to use executive action to move forward with its agenda on climate change. But if Republicans take over control of committee chairmanships in the Senate, there are a lot of things they can do to weaken and generally make life a living hell for the EPA.

It's not all bad news for rivers, squirrels, and trees though: The single biggest donor in the 2014 election (that we know of at least) was Tom Steyer. A billionaire hedge funder, he spent $73 million to prop up pro-environment candidates, mostly through his Super PAC NextGen Climate Action Committee. According to a memo leaked to the Washington Post, environmental groups, including Steyer's, spent around $85 million total on the election, with most of it going to gubernatorial races in Florida and Maine and Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan.

We won't know until Tuesday how effective these efforts were, but if pro-environment Senate candidates win and Republicans still get a majority, expect Steyer and his team to back with a vengeance in 2016.

FLORIDA
You are no doubt aware that Florida is the worst, a swampy sinkhole of pill mills, real estate fraud, and swingers parties, so it's only fitting that the phallus of America is home to the year's worst midterm race. Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott is in a tied race with former Governor Charlie Crist, who used to be a Republican, before he was an Independent, and now is a Democrat and wants his old job back. Both men are as strange and sleazy as they are tan, and both are responsible for the lowest moment of the 2014 elections, otherwise known as #Fangate, which involved Scott refusing to go on stage for a debate because of Crist's fan. Crist, you see, is mortally afraid of sweating in public, and so carries a little black fan with him wherever he goes. It's like an episode of Seinfeld except these caricatures of brittle, small-minded narcissists are actual human beings and one of them will be the most powerful person in the state. Your call, Florida.

WEED
While we're on the subject of Florida, we might as well talk about drugs. The outcome of Florida's gubernatorial race could hinge on which voters show up Tuesday to cast ballots on Amendment 2, which would amend the state's constitution to legalize medical marijuana. The primary supporter of Amendment 2, liberal megadonor John Morgan, seems determined to force Democrats to take sides on the issue (Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz picked the antiquated anti-weed one, and Morgan is already making her pay). On the other side, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the GOP's largest Super PAC donor, has given $2 million to the anti-Amendment 2 campaign, giving legalization opponents the resources and political heft that they have lacked in other state marijuana campaigns.

Elsewhere, voters in Oregon and Alaska will consider ballot initiatives that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. In Washington, DC, the city will vote on a measure that would legalize marijuana for personal use, although it won't legalize, regulate, or tax sales because DC voters don't get to make decisions about the city budget. This could set up an interesting showdown with drug war hawks on Capitol Hill-the last time DC passed a legalization initiative, for medical marijuana in 1998, Congress blocked it for 12 years.

2016
In the end, whatever happens on Tuesday--who wins control of the Senate, which governors win their elections--is just a buildup for the 2016 presidential race. Prospective candidates from both parties--Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, even Bernie Sanders--were all over the midterms, readying their battle stations for the real campaign, which basically begins on Wednesday.

The drama already started in Wisconsin this week, when Republican Governor Scott Walker, a presidential hopeful who is once again on the verge of losing his job, accused Chris Christie, who heads the Republican Governors Association, of withholding support for Walker's campaign. The implication, obviously, was that Christie is trying to knock Walker out of the running for 2016. It's probably not true--the RGA has actually given lots of money to Walker--but it still gives us a little preview of how much fun we're going to have for the next two years. 

So yeah, let's get through this training bra of an election, focus on the exciting one, and take bets on which Presidential nominee will strap their pet to the roof of a car next year. 

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