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US midterm elections: voting right, thinking left

November 6, 2014

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

The results of the midterm elections in the United States brought back memories of the 2010 vote which saw the emergence of the Tea Party and gave Republicans a hefty House majority. Again, President Barack Obama suffered a real shellacking. The November 4th Congressional elections, in fact, marked another Republican tide with the Grand Old Party (GOP) not only solidifying its advantage in the House but also taking control of the Senate, as well as clinching a number of important victories at the governor-level.

In an election considered by many a referendum on Obama, the Democrats suffered due to the President’s record-low approval ratings and evidently did not manage to put enough space between them and him, though undoubtedly they tried. During the entirety of the campaign season, the President was invited to appear alongside only one Senate candidate, Gary Peters in Michigan (who won his race). Like in previous midterms, the state of the economy was the most pressing issue for voters. According to exit polls, 78% of people ranked it as their top concern, despite the fact that GDP grew by 4.6% in the second quarter of 2014 and that the unemployment rate dipped below 6% in September. One explanation for this apparent contradiction is that growing income inequality, and a recovery skewed toward the rich, has the American middle class struggling to feel any real improvement in their standards of living. As the party not occupying the White House, Republicans benefited from this widespread dissatisfaction at the voting booth, though they have extremely low approval ratings as well.

With ballots still being counted and many races still to be called, they have already netted 10 House seats. Overall, they are set to increase their majority by 14 to 18 seats, which would give them the largest number of representatives since at least 1946 (the all-time record belongs to Democrats, who in 1979 could count on 292 votes).

In the meantime, the GOP decisively locked a majority in the Senate, which it had lost in 2006. Republicans, who needed six more senators to get ahead, won almost all of the races considered crucial this year. They brought home Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, which had previously been the Democrats’. They also held on to seats in Georgia, Kansas and Kentucky that, at one point or another, had appeared at risk. So much so that the outcome of the vote in Louisiana, where incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy will go to a runoff on December 6th, in Virginia, where incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie are practically tied, and in Alaska, where the polls close much later in the night because of the time zone difference, count only insofar as the size of the new Republican majority but are no longer going to decide the election.

That Democrats had no chance of retaking the House and would have a hard time holding on to the Senate was expected, though in both cases they ended up doing even worse than had been thought possible. But they were hoping to get at least some revenge in a number of high-profile governor races. Here too they were sorely disappointed. They lost their bids in Florida and Wisconsin, where incumbent Republican Governors Rick Scott and Scott Walker were reelected, and had to let go of the governorships of traditionally Democratic-leaning states such as Maryland and Massachusetts.

The only good news for liberals came from ballot measures. Voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C. gave the ok to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. In Florida, an initiative to make medical marijuana legal failed to reach the 60% threshold required by law, but did receive 57% of the votes. Taxpayers in Arkansas, Illinois and Nebraska approved a raise of their states’ minimum wage, while people in Colorado and North Dakota rejected “personhood” referendums that would have extended new rights to fetuses, therefore restricting access to abortion (Tennessee on the other hand passed a similar proposal). Oddly enough, then, Americans seem to be moving left on a host of social issues right when they are electing more Republicans to represent them.

Going forward, the main question is whether this election will make the legislative gridlock in Washington even worse. With both houses of Congress in Republicans’ hands, President Obama is officially a lame duck. But the truth is he has been so in practice for at least two, if not four, years, as the White House has accomplished little since the GOP took over the House in 2010. Now that both parties start gearing up for the 2016 presidential elections, and that the Republicans no longer have to worry about waging war against a term-limited president, there might be some, if small, room for compromise even in the face of increased polarization. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, who now becomes the Senate Majority Leader, said, “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.” We can only hope that he means it.

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