WASHINGTON, D.C. - The votes have been cast and counted and a great breath of stale air has swept into Washington.
In a year with an unusual number of tight Senate races, the Republicans won almost all of them and took control of the Senate for the first time since 2007. And for the second time in his presidency, President Obama has been shellacked by midterm voters.
Divided government is now more divided. The voters trust neither party with the reins of power.
Since the Republicans captured the House in the 2010 midterms, power has been divided between the parties and the federal government has been knotted. Republican control of the Senate will just add to the potential for even more gridlock.
The American electorate in 2014 is sour and widely unimpressed with Washington: Polls showed little enthusiasm for the elections, disapproval of the president is high but so is disapproval of Congress and both parties. In the exit polls, only 20 percent of voters trust the government to do what’s right most of the time (Note: Exit poll numbers may change as data is adjusted).
The great question now facing a Democratic lame duck president and Congress controlled by Republicans: Have the 2014 elections done anything to unglue gridlock? Is there any new incentive for the two sides to stick together on at least a few big issues?
Midterms rarely deliver mandates and this year is no exception. If the results this year were predictable, the parties’ responses are not. Will the president extend an early olive branch? Will Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, and Speaker of the House John Boehner revise a strategy of obstructionism?
If the new Congress is listening even a little to what the voters said tonight, they’ll hear a clear message: Clean up your act, all of you.
It is an ornery irony of modern politics that not many bums get thrown out, no matter how mad the voters are. The advantages of incumbency have become hard to surmount. But don’t mistake that for a contented electorate.
The portrait of the American voter painted by the exit polls is gloomy. Do they trust the government to do the right thing “most” of the time? No, 78 percent do not, a huge margin.
Congress has a disapproval rating of 79 percent, dwarfing Obama’s negatives by more than 20 points. Both parties are in trouble: 53 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of the Democrats, 56 percent for the Republicans.
Across the country, vast majorities think the country is “seriously on the wrong track”: In North Carolina, 68 percent; Georgia, 64 percent; New Hampshire, 65 percent; Kentucky, 71 percent. Half of all voters expect the next generation to have it worse, the most pessimistic assessment since the question was added to the exit polls in 1996.
Voters held their noses as they cast their votes. More than a third of the voters who picked Republican House candidates said they were angry with Republican leaders; a quarter of Democratic voters in House races were similarly dissatisfied with Obama.
The economy was the top issue but not as dominant as in the past few elections. By a 78-21 margin, voters are worried about the economy over the next year. Sixty-three percent think the economy favors the wealthy, 19 percent say it is fair.
Preliminary numbers indicate that young voters between 18-29 made up only 12 percent of the vote, way down from 19 percent in 2012. White voters were 75 percent of the electorate, up from 72 in the 2012 elections. But the minority vote decreased from 2012 slightly, 28 percent to 25 percent.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Mitch McConnell said, “You will be heard in Washington.”
But what did McConnell hear – compromise or confront?
He’ll get plenty of advice and pressure from a trio of presidential aspirants: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
In the days before the election, Cruz essentially threw down the gauntlet and said he would not commit to supporting McConnell for majority leader. He told The Washington Post that the Senate should swiftly launch a series of hearings “looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.”
“We are heading to Washington … and we are going to make ‘em squeal!” declared Joni Ernst, the new Republican Senator from Iowa.
McConnell and the Republicans face a tactical choice in positioning the party for the 2016 presidential elections. Do they try to work with the White House to pass legislation in some important arenas? Or do they obstruct everything Obama sends their way and pass bills they know will be vetoed, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act?
The compromise strategy is bound to have more appeal to independents and swing voters. But if the Republican House under John Boehner is an indicator, the dynamics of Congress triumph over national positioning. The House consistently took positions, on immigration and the budget for example, that went counter to the national party’s stated drive to court independents, minorities and young people.
If McConnell is looking for targets for bipartisanship, immigration, energy, tax reform and spending on infrastructure are frequently mentioned areas. “The Senate has done nothing essentially for the last four years,” McConnell said in the closing days of the campaign. “The Senate’s going back to work, and our first goal will be to see if there are things we can agree on with the president.”
The administration also has sounded a note of compromise – or at least Joe Biden has, if that counts.
In an interview with CNN released the Monday before the election, the Vice President said, “Going into 2016, the Republicans have to make a decision whether they’re in control or not in control. Are they going to begin to allow things to happen? Or are they going to continue to be obstructionists? And I think they’re going to choose to get things done.”
“We’re ready to compromise,” Biden said.
Tuesday’s vote certainly gives the administration plenty of reason to bring out a new playbook. The Democrats’ strength in Congress has steadily waned under Obama. Candidates across the map ran away from the president this year. But it was a strategy that ultimately failed.
Regardless, Tuesday’s election was the culmination of a long string of setbacks for the president from the VA scandal to his perceived indecision on ISIS, Ukraine and Ebola. His approval ratings dropped all year and Tuesday’s exit polls confirmed the discontent with his leadership.
It will be significantly harder for the president to get his appointments through the Senate – and it hasn’t been easy for the past six years. A key early test will be over Obama’s pick to be attorney general.
Red landscape and 2016
The president and the Democrats do have a ready set of talking points for post-election spin.
It is nearly an immutable rule: Presidents get spanked in midterm elections. In the 20 midterms since 1934, the president’s party lost seats in the House 17 times and in the Senate 15 times.
The terrain in 2014 has always looked especially good for Republicans. Five Democrats retired this year and only one Republican. Democrats had to defend 21 seats, Republicans only 15. Several of those Democrats were elected in the Obama wave of 2008 in states that would go for Mitt Romney in 2012. As a group, the states in this year’s class of Senate races voted more Republican than the rest of the country in 2012.
On top of all this, voters have continued to perceive the economy as weak and the president’s approval ratings plummeted through this summer. All the fancy prediction models predicted the Republicans would regain the Senate -- and they all were right.
The Republicans capitalized on these conditions in large part by recruiting and nominating candidates that would be attractive in general elections, not just Republic primaries. The failure to do that in recent elections cost them seats, especially in 2012 when hardcore Tea Party candidates won primaries in Indiana and Missouri and went on to embarrassing and avoidable losses in the general.
The so-called GOP Establishment vowed not to that let happen again. Incumbents like Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and Thad Cochran fought off tough challenges from the right – and prevailed handily.
There were bits and pieces of good news for Democrats in the exit polls. Single women, a core demographic, voted Democratic by a 2 to 1 margin. Women broke heavily for Democrats in red and purple states that will be crucial in 2016 – Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa and Virginia. And there is no evidence that Republicans made inroads with young voters or minorities.
Voters also aligned themselves with a number of more Democratic positions on key issues. For example, the exit polls showed majorities favor legal abortion, giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and see climate change as a “serious problem.”
But there is one great debate that dominated the long, nasty and expensive election, leading some to call it a Seinfeld Election – an election about nothing.
In truth, this was an election in the spirit of Seinfeld’s sidekick George Costanza, the perpetual pessimist who didn’t like much of anything. The Costanza Election of 2014 was an election about anxiety and mistrust.
Note: The exit poll survey of 11,522 voters nationwide was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 281 precincts Tuesday, as well as 3,113 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 24 through Nov. 2.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.