Republicans must view last Tuesday not as a mandate, rather a call to action.
Make no mistake last Tuesday was an impressive win for Republicans. Some have even described it as a Republican “wave,” but in truth it was more of a Democratic “wipeout”. Why the distinction? Because in order for the GOP to keep their majority, and avoid a reversal in 2016, they must resist the urge to see their “win” as anything less than a call to immediate action towards accomplishing certain goals in the next 12 months.
The GOP benefitted from Democratic apathy
From a political strategy perspective, the GOP is in good shape. The national party organizations did an outstanding job (especially when compared to previous cycles) targeting resources where they were best utilized, and virtually eliminating the catastrophic and wide-reaching gaffes of past cycles. They also successfully launched their newest generation of voter mobilization applications.
There’s even good news where party unity is concerned. After a highly contentious primary season, tea party candidates and organizations set aside ideological differences and aggressively supported the Republican candidates in the general election.
However, in spite of these clearly positive events, the gains made in the House, and retaking the majority in the Senate were more of a welcome by-product of the Democrats’ spectacular failures. As much as I’d love to say the GOP prevailed by invigorating the electorate with a compelling message, I have to be honest and admit that’s just not the case.
For starters, anecdotal evidence indicates that Democratic voter turnout was off considerably. It will be a while before the numbers can truly be quantified, but reasonable estimates can be implied.
Nonetheless, enough data is in for Michael P. McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, to make preliminary estimates of turnout. And what they show is a steep decline from recent national elections. McDonald estimates that just 36.6 percent of Americans eligible to vote did so for the highest office on their ballot. That’s down from 40.9 percent in the previous midterm elections, in 2010, and a steep falloff from 58 percent in 2012.
Empirically, the average percent of vote received by Republican challengers (including open seat races) were not at levels that represent a mandate for GOP policies. Rather they follow an expected path with an apathetic Democratic base that stayed home. In other words, rather than riding a wave, GOP candidates floated in with the trending tide.
US Senate Average Vote Percentage for Republican Winners
US House Average Vote Percentage for Republican Winners
Incumbents in both chambers saw increases over 2012 but challengers declined, which is counterintuitive given the dramatic reduction in Democratic voters. And while an average of 58% in the House is notable on the surface, it is not so impressive when the effects of redistricting are taken into account with the associated Republican bias in the districts where GOP candidates won.
What worked in 2014 will NOT work in 2016
One could argue that refusing to call last Tuesday’s GOP win a “wave” or “mandate” is quibbling over semantics, and looking at each race up close, in the context of last week alone, that might be true. But when we look at the results with 2016 in mind, the potential negative implications of misinterpreting a “mandate” become more apparent. That said, one thing can be unequivocally gleaned from the mid-terms: the electorate is angry, frustrated and impatient, but that’s the reason the victorious Republicans should be so careful.
Voters will not accept a “blame game” strategy again in 2016, nor will it be viable with Obama’s departure. In politics all things have upsides and downsides, and the downside for the GOP in obtaining the Senate majority and more seats in the House is they will be held to greater accountability by voters over the next twelve months than their Democratic brethren. This doesn’t mean the Democrats cannot be put on the defensive, especially if they refuse to compromise on some of the most important issues. But it does mean the party in power is the primary target for voter wrath, as we just saw last week.
In 2016, the GOP will be on defense
The tables are completely reversed in the Senate 2016 races. The GOP will be defending 24 of the 34 seats up for reelection. As such, Democrats will likely need minimal resources to hold all their seats because they averaged a margin of victory for Obama in 2012 of just under 20%. However, the GOP will be defending six seats in states that Obama won in 2012 by an average of more than 6%, and in four states where Romney won by less than 9%.
With the predictable return to the polls of the Democratic base, it will be the Republicans who are fighting an unfriendly political landscape. While gerrymandered districts may provide some insulation against big Democratic gains in the House, there are no guarantees, so the prospect of losing seats in the House, as well as the majority in the Senate, is quite real.
With the best defense being an aggressive offense, Republicans have less than a year to leverage their newfound Senate majority and increased control of the House through demonstrative progress. Progress is the only thing that will give them a saleable message for 2016.
A practical legislative agenda not reactionary overreaching
What do I mean by “progress?” The next twelve months is not the time for grandstanding or show-down theatrics. Such impertinence will be perceived poorly by the electorate and likely result in the loss of what was just gained – seats in the House, the Senate majority, and any genuine opportunity to win back the White House.
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have already begun forming plans for such an agenda, and George Will wrote an excellent primer last week in the Washington Post.
Such measures may be too granular to satisfy the grandiose aspirations of those conservatives who, sharing progressives’ impatience with our constitutional architecture, aspire to have their way completely while wielding just one branch of government. But if, as is likely, the result of Congress doing these and similar things is a blizzard of presidential vetoes, even this would be constructive. The 2016 presidential election would follow a two-year demonstration of how reactionary progressivism is in opposing changes to the nation’s trajectory. Congressional actions provoking executive rejections would frame the argument about progressivism. And as Margaret Thatcher advised, first you win the argument, then you win the vote.
Given the certainty that the GOP won’t be able to leverage the same arguments in 2016 that worked last week Lady Thatcher’s statement takes on an air of greater importance. Republicans have a year to convince the American public that they can govern, and grow the party by drawing moderate voters to the right. Unyielding social ideologies, uncompromising fiscal policies, and an overreaching legislative agenda are not what will attract voters in 2016. There are a great many things that can be realized that conservatives want while, at the same time, putting progressives on the defense and painting them as the obstructionists in DC.
The key is incremental progress and practical politicking, for without them there will likely be a red wipeout in 2016 rather than blue. Republicans have been handed a golden opportunity, but it’s one with a one-year window. The only message voters sent last Tuesday is they are fed up. Republicans must heed that message, and react accordingly.