Takeaways from the Midterm Elections

Capital Landscape
Capital Landscape
photo by Jeff Urbanchuk

Across the land, professional prognosticators, pundits, and street corner experts are opining on the effects and lessons of the 2014 election cycle. Being none of those I still feel compelled to add a few observations.

There is no doubt the Republican victories were more complete than observers estimated so there is no use in rehashing how the terrain favored the Republicans or, conversely, that this was a clear repudiation of President Obama’s leadership. Instead, let’s look at a few less widely promulgated (at least at the time of this writing) ideas.

1. Candidates Matter

Often, so much of the conversation around elections talk about funding, the ground game, and a host of other variables that assume the candidate is secondary. But look no further than Massachusetts to be reminded that a weak candidate is usually terminal. Republicans learned this lesson over the last several cycles. Remember the candidate who had to declare she wasn’t a witch or the one who tried to re-define rape? Yes. Republicans remember them too. That’s why there was a concerted effort to find strong candidates.

The Democrats have not yet learned that lesson. Martha Coakley, perhaps the worst senatorial candidate ever to run in Massachusetts, returned to botch her gubernatorial run. Lt. Governor Anthony Brown in Maryland spent his time in office reclining in the shadow of Gov. Martin O’Malley. The one management role he was given was the role-out of the state’s health care exchange. It was so badly mismanaged the federal government was asked to investigate. In the course of his campaign he hid from the media and was reluctant to answer their questions. These are two states where the Democrats should have retained the State House, but they didn’t because of weak candidates.

2. Surprises Happen

The proliferation of polling and the increased accuracy of experts like Nate Silver and the Real Clear team make it hard to believe that an electoral upset can happen. Sure, margins of victory often vary a bit, but an unforeseen upset? Well that is a surprise. Again, look at Maryland. Nobody expected Larry Hogan to beat Lt. Gov. Brown, but he did. Take Virginia. Senator Mark Warner, as of this writing, has not been declared the winner in his re-election campaign. Very few people expected Ed Gillespie to run so strongly. In fact, all the polling models showed Warner with a double digit lead. Gillespie may not ultimately prevail, but Hogan and he showed that surprise upsets can and still happen.

3. The Republican Bench for 2016 is Strong

A year or two ago, many Republicans across the country were looking at a pair of first term senators to be the party’s 2016 standard bearers. Yet, after Tuesday the field of potential contenders has expanded considerably with a host of Republican governors worthy of consideration. A quick rundown of governors winning second terms this cycle includes: John Kasich of Ohio, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Florida’s Rick Scott (whose personal fortune of more than $130 million gives him certain additional advantages). These governors join other two term incumbents like Chris Christie, Mike Pence, and outgoing governor Rick Perry in the 2016 name game.

Given that governors have to balance budgets, must demonstrate executive leadership and the ability to run large bureaucracies, and do not have to take positions on procedural votes that can be easily used against them, I’d rather run for president as a governor than senator any day.

Let’s see who starts making trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.

4. Hillary’s Path is Clearer

This is the takeaway I’m least confident in. A few may say Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination got harder because she was a senior member of an administration that was just soundly trashed. Moreover, many of the candidates she campaigned for lost. In these respects she and Joe Biden have many of the same problems with the exception that Biden is still part of an increasingly unpopular Administration (among Republicans and progressive Democrats) for two more years.

The election also put a hitch or two in the stride of a few politicians who previously floated trial balloons about running. Governor O’Malley, who has done nothing to tamp down presidential expectations, saw his legacy repudiated with the defeat of Anthony Brown. It is not clear if that will slow him down, but the question is being asked by many. Sen. Warner’s name occasionally floated into the mix of potential candidates, but his uncertain victory will limit any further speculation.

So who challenges Hillary? Biden of course, but whom else? Maybe her path is clearer. Then again, everyone said that in 2006-2007 until an unknown Senator captivated the Democrats and captured the presidency.

So there you have my takeaways. They may not be better than the professional on TV, or maybe some blogs, but I like to think they’re better than that guy at the corner of the bar.

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