Fear or loathing? Anger at Obama trumps fear of GOP

Voters fill out their ballot at a polling station during the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Voters fill out their ballot at a polling station during the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Washington, D.C. MCT

This election wasn’t about hope and change. Instead, the midterm elections were a battle between fear and loathing.

Driven by anger, Republican voters were more eager to cast votes protesting President Barack Obama’s policies than were Democrats frightened about what a Republican Congress would do to civil rights, equal pay or minimum wage efforts and cherished social programs.

Voters rebelled – or stayed home. The rebels showing up were Republicans. Those who stayed home were mostly Democrats.

Turnout among voters under 30, so crucial to Democratic success, sagged. One in five 2012 voters was 18 to 29; this time, they were an estimated 13 percent of the electorate.

Turnout among African-Americans and Latinos, two constituencies that helped Obama win several states in 2012, appeared to be down.

Republicans were fired up. Nearly one in four voters Tuesday was over 65, and they broke 57 percent to 42 percent for Republicans, according to exit polls.

Democrats worked hard to turn out women, but the strategy helped motivate Republican women outraged about the emphasis on reproductive rights and so-called “women’s issues.” Women gave Democrats a 5 percentage point edge Tuesday, not enough to offset Republicans’ 14 point advantage among men.

Youth, Democrat vote stays at home

In this year's – and 2010's – midterm election, younger voters stayed home, coinciding with a drop in votes for Democrats.

Note: 2010, 2014 party party determined by votes for House candidates. 2012 by presidential votes.
18 to 29
30 to 44
45 to 64
65 or older
Source: Pew Research Center

The biggest factor driving the results was Obama. Democrats eagerly rallied to him in 2008 and 2012. This time, disillusioned by his performance and getting tentative signals from Democratic candidates, they had far less incentive to vote.

The party seemed uncertain how to mobilize minorities and younger voters. In key congressional races, particularly in the South, Democrats tried to distance themselves from the president, but in doing so they alienated the very base they needed to turn out.

Republicans had no such qualms about their base. They nationalized races with a simple message: Vote against the president.

“This was all about a rejection of the Obama agenda,” Republican Chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday.

It was also about some sound Republican tactics and some luck. As 2014 began, party leaders fought to keep more extreme candidates from winning nominations in potentially close Senate races. Republicans lamented they could have won Senate control in 2010 and 2012, but too many candidates proved too doctrinaire for mainstream voters, handing winnable races to Democrats.

Not this time. Every major challenger with close ties to the conservative tea party faltered in hotly contested primaries.

Also helping Republicans was the map. Democrats defended 21 Senate seats, Republicans 15. One-third of the Democratic seats were in states 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won. Republican Senate candidates won six and were leading in Alaska.

None of this, though, means a new Republican era has dawned. Voters have proven fickle. Tuesday’s vote was the third straight midterm election where one party has caught a wave. In each case – Democrats in 2006 and Republicans in 2010 – Congress wound up in interminable squabbles.

Voters Tuesday sent Washington and state capitals the same message they gave in those elections: For crying out loud, make the system work.

Republicans stayed away from making the election a referendum on specific policies. They downplayed their desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act, revamp the tax system or figure out a way to absorb millions of undocumented immigrants.

Wednesday, they weren’t talking about those matters, but instead insisting they got Tuesday’s message. They’ll be able to prove it quickly.

Congress has until Dec. 11 to come up with a spending plan or the government could shut down. Early next year, it faces pressure to again raise the debt ceiling. Dozens of Obama nominations, including a prospective attorney general, await.

Each of those matters has triggered lengthy, ugly disputes in recent years. The months-long 2011 budget standoff cost the government its lofty credit rating for the first time ever. 2013 began with a New Year’s Day vote to resolve a budget crisis. By fall, a debt ceiling battle led to a partial government shutdown. Clashes over nominations led Democrats to change Senate rules so that it usually now takes 51 votes, rather than 60, to stop a filibuster against a nominee.

Comity won’t come easy, as wounded Democrats signaled defiance. “Now that they (Republicans) control Congress, they have no one left to blame,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the House Democratic campaign chairman. An anticipated executive order easing some immigration policies is sure to kindle a new round of partisan fury.

Even among Republicans, the honeymoon could end quickly. Now that they run Congress, they want to demonstrate they can govern responsibly. Their luck also will end, as the party will defend 24 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 10 in 2016.

More ominous, Republicans face an ongoing struggle between doctrinaire conservatives and get-along center-right lawmakers.

Congressional leaders talked in broad strokes Wednesday. “We’ve got to break through the gridlock,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the Republican House campaign committee.

At the same time, the firebrands were blasting away. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sent a letter to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signed by five colleagues. If Obama goes ahead with his immigration orders, they warned, and Reid doesn’t act, “we will use all procedural means necessary” to settle the matter.

Sixty votes would stop them. Democrats next year will have at most 48.