Editor’s note–we are publishing this piece before we deliver hard copies of the magazine in order to ensure it can be viewed well in advance of the election. Other articles from our October issue will be released online after the magazines are distributed following Fall Break.
The morning of November 7, 2012, Republicans across the country awoke with a sense of disbelief. One day earlier, Barack Obama had been reelected President of the United States. The Democratic Party gained eight seats in Congress despite rampant Republican gerrymandering and two seats in the Senate despite a highly unfavorable map.
To call this a Republican defeat would be to put it mildly. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, many conservative pundits and activists believed that they were on the verge of delivering a coup de grâce to the Obama agenda. Instead, President Obama won every single battleground state except historically conservative North Carolina, and the Republican Party lost every single tossup-rated Senate race, including one in Montana and another in North Dakota.
Something in the GOP was not working.
In the blame-game that ensued, Tea Party-aligned groups blamed the establishment for backing a politically flawed candidate and for running a poor ground game. The establishment attacked the Tea Party for dragging the eventual nominee to the right over the course of numerous primary debates and for supporting socially conservative policies.
As poll after poll showed growing opposition to conservative principles from gun rights to traditional marriage, it became apparent that the GOP was in retreat, forced to rethink long-held stances. Two years later, the Republican Party looks set to retake the Senate and control both houses of Congress for the first time in eight years. The tables have been turned.
The main factor driving Republican optimism is a Senate map favorable to the GOP. Senators are elected for six-year terms, meaning that the current crop running for reelection last faced voters in 2008, a Democratic landslide election. Democrats who were elected in red or purple states on Obama’s coattails must now run for reelection in a very different political climate.
Though there are currently 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans in the Senate, the Republicans could cruise to a 52-48 majority by only winning states that Romney won against Obama. As a result, the Republican Party does not even need to expand its electoral appeal in the short term. Getting all of the Romney supporters to vote Republican, hardly an impossible task, would bring the Senate back into Republican hands.
In addition, the Obama administration has done little to earn confidence with the botched Obamacare rollout and a listless foreign policy. Perhaps most importantly, the immigration crisis on the Southwest border has put the Democrats on the defensive when it comes to immigration reform. At press time, President Obama’s approval rating stood at 42.4% according to the RealClearPolitics average, hardly an encouraging number for any red state Democrat desperately seeking reelection.
President Obama’s unpopularity has expanded the GOP’s reach beyond traditionally red states. Republican candidates in key swing states such as Colorado and Iowa, and to a lesser extent New Hampshire and North Carolina, are well placed to pick up seats. This expanded map allows the Republicans a greater margin of error. They will retake the Senate as long as they win half of the tossup-rated races.
So far, the Republicans have avoided the cringe-worthy Akinesque gaffes that characterized previous election cycles, and refuted much of the left’s “war on women” rhetoric by focusing on issues such as jobs and education. Former Senator Scott Brown, running for the Senate in New Hampshire and Monica Wehby, running in Oregon, both back abortion rights.
This shift to the center on abortion and other social issues (Wehby also backs gay marriage) is due to the establishment’s more forceful participation in the primary process. It has swatted aside Tea Party challenges in Kansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi, ensuring that veteran senators stay on the ballot. Elsewhere, Tea Party firebrands didn’t get anywhere in Alaska, Georgia, and North Carolina, paving the way for Republican candidates with broader appeal. Scan the list of 2014 Senate nominees, and you won’t find a single Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell.
After several high profile defeats in previous election cycles, the Republican establishment has learned that it cannot take any race for granted. Groups such as American Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce are getting involved in the primary process to ensure that more moderate Republicans have the financial backing to compete with Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and other conservative super PACs.
In Washington, congressional Republicans have avoided the budget brinksmanship and shutdown tactics that brought down Republican approval ratings. As Ted Cruz found out last year, the public will side with Democrats in the event of a government shutdown.
Individual senators have learned from the mistakes of Senator Richard Lugar, the longstanding Republican from Indiana who lost to a primary challenger in 2012. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is the ideal target of any Tea Party challenge, with his moderate stances on immigration and hawkish positions on foreign policy offending many in the base. Senator Graham took the challenge head on by engaging with the South Carolina Tea Party movement and helping Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a highly touted potential opponent, get a coveted seat on the House Financial Services Committee. Later on, one of his primary opponents complained that no one of sufficient stature had been willing to challenge Senator Graham. By honing his local political machine, Senator Graham was able cut down any challenges before they materialized.
Paradoxically, Washington establishment-backed candidates often seem far more authentic than their Tea Party opponents. When Sarah Palin endorsed Chris McDaniel’s primary challenge to moderate Senator Thad Cochran, a Cochran aide replied that “we’re happy to have the endorsement of our governor. We’ll leave the out-of-state people to other folks.” Cochran went on to win. When the Senate Conservatives Fund, a Tea Party-aligned PAC, ran attack ads against Representative James Lankford, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn stepped into the breach and defended Lankford against the accusations. Lankford went on to beat Tea Party-backed candidate TW Shannon.
The only Tea Party victory this cycle was Eric Cantor’s loss to David Brat, a little-known economics professor with no backing from national Tea Party organizations (although he was supported by a strong grassroots contingent within Virginia’s 7th congressional district). Perhaps the Tea Party works best the way it was founded, as a grassroots organization aimed at opposing Washington interests. However, in many ways, those days are over. The Tea Party has lost its organic appeal and morphed into an alternative inside-the-beltway political apparatus, intent on pursuing its own agenda.
A 2014 victory will do little to ease the tensions between the Tea Party and the establishment. With a narrow Senate majority, there would be no prospects for meaningful legislation. The Senate will continue to be in gridlock, with the Democrats using the same procedural measures to slow down legislative activity that the Republicans are using now. The Republican Party will likely be torn between increasing oversight and taking a more conciliatory approach to governing. While moderate Democrats may support forcing the administration’s hand on the Keystone XL pipeline and the repealing unpopular provisions of the Affordable Care Act, yet another Benghazi investigation could antagonize swing votes.
Meanwhile, a hugely problematic election cycle lurks just over the horizon. A Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016 will energize the Democratic base, and bolster Democratic voter turnout even among those who are disappointed with President Obama. At the same time, the 2016 Senate map will prove difficult to defend, with the Republican Party having to fight for seats in blue or purple states that it won in the 2010 wave.
Looking at 2016 and beyond, the GOP needs to address its greater structural concerns. There are significant policy differences within the Republican Party, as there are within the Democratic Party. This does not mean that every candidate needs to embrace the same positions. The Democrats have successfully become a tent party encompassing a broad range of views. After all, from the Republican perspective, it is far better to have a moderate Republican senator who will side with the party on only half of the issues than a liberal Democrat who would never side with the party at all.
The most damaging effect of the 2010 Tea Party wave has been to impose the same standard of conservatism on every single Republican congressional hopeful. Democrats elect Senators in red states such as Alaska and North Dakota by allowing them to deviate on certain key liberal tenets.
In an interview with GQ magazine, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker outlined three problems with the Republican Party. “They’re always against Obama, so they’re not optimistic. I try to be optimistic and visionary. Second, they talk in terms most people can’t relate to. Fiscal cliffs and sequesters don’t mean anything to most people. I talk about whether your kid coming out of college is gonna have a job. And third, they don’t get out much—and I’m around the state quite a bit.”
As an opposition party, the Republicans were able to translate discontent with the Obama administration into electoral gains. In 2016 and beyond, this will have to turn into a positive agenda that must resonate with all Americans, regardless of wealth and ethnicity. Governor Walker overcame monumental opposition to get elected and reelected in Wisconsin, precisely the sort of Rust Belt battleground where Republicans need to win. As long as the Republican Party can articulate how small government and individual enterprise can help all members of our society, it will be a formidable movement in the upcoming elections and beyond.