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Why the 2014 Midterms Matter — And Why Nobody Seems to Care

With disillusionment high and voter turnout expected to be low, today’s elections may not radically change a dysfunctional Washington — but the stakes still remain high.

by Ari Ratner
Nov 4 2014, 8:10pm

Photo via Flickr

Voters across the country are on their way to the polls to decide the winners and losers of this year's midterm elections.

With disillusionment high and turnout expected to be low, there is a growing sense — among pundits and voters alike — that today's elections may not radically change a dysfunctional Washington.

Yet, while no single election can "fix" a broken political system, the stakes of today's vote remain high.

It will determine who occupies key positions of power and how they govern. It will have ramifications on President Barack Obama's legacy and the 2016 Presidential race. It will determine control of the Senate, where Democrats and their allies currently hold a 55-45 majority over Republicans.

Republicans are widely favored to retake the Senate. The accuracy of those forecasts will be decided by voters in a handful of key battlegrounds, a diverse group of states that includes, Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Colorado.

If the expected Republican takeover of the Senate comes up short, the election will be seen as a major victory for Obama and the Democrats.

Showdown in Coal Country. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

If Republicans succeed, expect a new series of confrontations. There will be showdowns with the President. There will be squabbling within their own caucus between hardliners angling for the party's presidential nomination — such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz — and moderates who will have to protect their seats in 2016, when the electoral map favors Democrats.

'Young people have a lot more at stake in any particular election than more senior Americans.'

The occupancy of Governor's mansions in more than 30 states will be settled, including key races in Florida, Georgia, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, and Wisconsin. There will also be 146 ballot initiatives in 41 states and the District of Columbia on everything from defining the "personhood" of fetuses to legalizing marijuana to raising the minimum wage.

There are also approximately 30 tossup races in the US House. Though Republicans are certain to maintain control, several representatives will likely lose their seats. And, last but certainly not least, countless state and local elections will influence the day-to-day governance of towns, cities, and counties across the country.

Though there is good news — unemployment is below 6 percent for the first time since 2008, gas prices are down, and the stock market is up — the public remains cynical. The country seems to be suffering a long-term hangover from the myriad crises of the past two presidencies: War, terrorism, the financial meltdown, and the unmet expectations of "hope" and "change."

The economy, foreign policy, immigration reform, the future of healthcare, and foreign policy — these issues are all at stake in the midterms. As President Obama has said, his own "policies are on the ballot," even if he isn't.

Obama's approval rating now sits at just 42 percent. Only 26 percent of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction, and a mere 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.

Colorado's key Senate race is a battle for America's environment. Read more here.

VICE News spent the last month focusing our election coverage on one key issue: the environment. Perhaps no issue matters as much to our collective future. And yet young voters have grown disenchanted and are largely expected to sit this election out.

"It's ironic — because young people have a lot more at stake in any particular election than more senior Americans," Congressman Jared Polis told VICE News. "When we're talking about quality of life, environmental issues, and renewable energy, we're talking about our lifetime. We're talking about the lifetime of somebody in their 20s or 30s and how it affects the geo-political landscape, how it affects the air they breathe, how it affects the price they pay for energy, how it affects the quality of their life."

VICE News has run a series of stories exploring the role of the environment in the midterm elections.

We investigated the influence of coal in West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District. We looked at gas and oil extraction in Colorado's pristine Thompson-Divide wilderness. We went to Florida to see how climate change and rising sea levels are impacting the governor's race. We searched for the Keystone XL pipeline in Kansas. We visited North Carolina and New Hampshire, where environmental groups have spent millions attempting to sway voters.

These races — and many more— will decide how the country generates and consumes energy. They will dictate the preservation of our natural resources, and the environmental legacy that we all will inherit.

In the complicated machinations of politics, the issues are never quite as simple as Democrat and Republican.

In some key races, such as Louisiana's close Senate contest between incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and her Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, both sides favor similar policies to protect important industries to the state, such as oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Similarly, in the hotly contested battle in West Virginia between 19-term incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Evan Jenkins, the fight to preserve coal crosses party lines.

Florida governor's race: Dispatch from a battleground state headed underwater. Read more here.

Though there is little difference between individual candidates in these races, the outcomes are still important.

If Landrieu loses, the Senate is more likely to turn Republican, with all changes for environmental policy that entails. The new Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (which has oversight over the EPA) would then likely be Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who has infamously called climate change "laughable" and "a hoax" and compared the EPA to the Gestapo.

The 2,151-mile Keystone Pipeline and its proposed 1,179-mile extension has also become a national dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. If Republicans take the Senate, they may pass a bill mandating its construction, forcing President Obama to either approve or veto the project.

Expect a Republican Congress to restrict the budget for federal programs they ideologically oppose, such as regulations aimed at stemming climate change.

If Rahall loses in West Virginia, even though the balance of power in the House will remain unchanged, the impacts may be felt more broadly. Rahall is the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His loss would weaken the influence of Democrats on the powerful committee.

Despite all the local and personal complexities that exist in every race, the difference between the national parties on the environment remains stark.

At its most basic, the divide is still "Drill, Baby Drill" versus Obama's "All-of-the-Above" energy strategy. Even when the two parties seemingly agree — as in the shared talk of "energy security" — they fail to achieve consensus.

When Republicans speak of energy security, they typically mean expanding oil, gas, and other traditional means of energy production. Democrats usually emphasize green energy technology, which they believe can deliver both new jobs and environmental benefits.

Regardless of what happens with the Senate, Washington is likely to remain gridlocked on most issues, including the environment. Powers are divided by design in the Constitution, and the Democrats will still hold the presidency.

In search of the Keystone XL pipeline — and its impact on the midterm elections. Read more here.

Obama will likely continue to use executive action to further his environmental policies, including the EPA's groundbreaking program to limit carbon emissions, a renewed attempt to negotiate a climate change treaty, and federal guidelines on technical issues like fuel efficiency standards.

Nevertheless, the control of the House and Senate together will give Republicans important new powers. They will be able to attach Republican priorities to "must pass" legislation like the Defense Authorization or Highway Bill — effectively forcing Obama to either accede to their demands or veto important national priorities.

Republicans will also hold one of the most important Congressional powers — the power to fund the government, colloquially known as "the power of the purse." Expect a Republican Congress to restrict the budget for federal programs they ideologically oppose, such as regulations aimed at stemming climate change. Several Republican candidates, including Iowa's Joni Ernst, have called for abolishing the EPA.

All of these issues will play out against the backdrop of the Presidential campaign cycle that will soon heat up. And therein lies the perverse beauty of American elections — even though the results matter, the next race always matters more.

Ari Ratner is a Fellow at New America. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner 

Photo via Flickr

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