It was quite an evening. Republicans won every winable seat and a few that were considered unwinable. As the evening drew to a close last night, Republicans held 52 Senate seats with two more (Alaska and Louisiana) likely to fall into the fold, and even the Democrats presumed-safe Virginia seat tottering on the brink of going Republican. To add insult to injury, Republicans added at least 10 more house seats to their already substantial majority in the US House of Representatives, giving the GOP their biggest House majority since 1946.
Republicans bagged governorships in one key state after another including Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and even Maryland where Real Clear Politics declared the State a “Strong Democrat Hold” in their last pre-election forecast. Nate Silver, the nation’s most vaunted prognosticator gave Maryland Democrat Anthony Brown a 94% likelihood of trouncing Republican Larry Hogan, predicting Brown would win by nearly 10 points. Instead Hogan with what the press called “a shoestring budget” scored the most stunning upset in the nation in taking 54% of the Maryland vote. Forty-six years earlier (1968) Hogan’s father (also Larry Hogan) scored the nation’s biggest Congressional upset defeating Democrat Hervey Machen in Maryland’s 5th congressional district. Hogan, we believe, is one of a new crop of young, energetic Republicans that, hopefully, will help rebrand the GOP. In the interest of full disclosure, this essayist and Hogan’s father were business partners, close friends and I had the privilege of being a senior member of the campaign team that produced that stunning 1968 upset.
Given the low voter turn out (about 35%) the dollars spent per vote in this election was, well, ludicrous. The top ten Senate races cost an estimated $700 million – just for the top ten races! Nearly $500 million was spent on the top Senate races and just under $300 million was spent on the top House races, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Contrary to popular perception, the Democratic Senate and House Majority PACs, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have spent more than any other outside groups — $47.4 million and $29.5 million, respectively. The Karl Rove-led group American Crossroads spent the most on the GOP side — $21.7 million, followed by the conservative Freedom Partners Action Fund and the Ending Spending Action Fund, which have spent $21.5 billion and $21.3 million.
The depth and width of the Republican sweep was breathtaking. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback survived a race in which he was thought to be very vulnerable. Every race that could have gone the Republican’s way simply did. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts beat back a strong challenge from Independent Greg Orman, and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito pocketed the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, “It’s the first time in 60 years we have sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate,” Capito said. In fact it’s the first time West Virginia has ever sent a women to the US Senate.
In Arkansas, former President Bill Clinton’s six trips to campaign for Democrat Mark Pryor came to naught with Republican Tom Cotton taking the Razorback State. In Colorado, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner trounced Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, and in North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis unseated incumbent Kay Hagan. Even powerful Tom Harken’s seat was lost to a Republican newcomer, Joni Ernst. Democratic hopes were dashed almost everywhere, with Republican David Perdue besting Democrat Michelle Nunn in Georgia, and Charlie Baker sending Democrat Martha Coakley packing in Massachusetts of all places.
But just what does it all mean? Possibly quite a lot…and possibly not much at all. It all depends on how the Republicans use their new-found mandate, or whether they use it at all. Do the Republicans really even have a mandate? That’s an easy question with an easy answer. They most certainly do. And if there was any doubt about that, President Obama put that to rest in a curious, carefully scripted statement on the eve of the election. “I’m not on the ballot,” the President said, “But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” Well, fair enough. If that is, indeed, the case, those policies, “every single one of them” are subject to a huge second thought.
Actually, we believe the election was mostly a huge protest about a government that isn’t working as much as it was about a President (or his policies) that isn’t working. Exit polls conducted by the Gallop Organization suggest that “fixing itself” is what most voters expect Congress to do. Only about 20% of voters claimed that the economy was their primary concern. While President Obama was an albatross around the necks of nearly every Democratic candidate, mostly it seemed to be his lack of leadership more than his policies that were driving voters to distraction. Voters want the machinery of government to start working again.
The country wants to see Washington act to create robust economic growth once again. They are unimpressed that the unemployment rate is going down, while earnings fail to go up. They know that that just means that more people are working, but earning less for their labor. They don’t like the drift toward America becoming a part-time work economy. They don’t like immigration policy being all talk and no action. And they want decisions on energy policy including some resolution of the Keystone pipeline spectacle. They want healthcare policies that create manageable costs without requiring families to juggle higher deductibles to produce affordable costs. And most of all they are desperate to see an end to gridlock in Washington.
Voters will largely look to the new Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell to unclog Washington. McConnell trounced Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by a whopping 15 points. He has a mandate as he begins his sixth term in the Senate. McConnell understands what voters expect of him.
“We do have an obligation to work together on issues on which we agree,” he told supporters in Louisville. “I think I’ve shown that to be true in critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me the chance to show it again.”
He added: “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”
Make no mistake about it — more than anything, the electorate feels we have a terribly dysfunctional government, and two years from now if they still feel that way, the wave of 2014 will turn into the riptide of 2016.