Published November 16, 2014
Democrats are looking to Hillary Clinton as their party’s savior after the drubbing of the midterms. But Republicans need not be afraid of her second coming. This month’s wave showed she can be beat.
The first lesson is that mechanics matter, but message matters more. No one doubts that the GOP has upped its ground game, but you can’t turn out voters who don’t want to vote for your party.
The second lesson is that in presidential years, you can’t win by being purely in opposition. Midterm elections are often pure referendums on the incumbent administration. Voters know they can send a message without seriously changing course. That’s one reason why Republican midterm waves since World War II have rarely been followed by a Republican presidential win.
Waves in 1946, 1994 and 2010 were followed by the re-elections of Presidents Truman, Clinton and Obama. Only the GOP wave of 1966 was followed by Republican victory — and Richard Nixon barely squeaked by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in a three-way race with under 44 percent.
The third point is that the midterms had two types of GOP messages being broadcast, one for the senatorial races that was largely anti-Obama and one for the gubernatorial races that had a more positive component. Both were successful, but compared with Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing, the latter was more so.
Any Republican who wants to beat Hillary will need to run about 21/2 percent ahead of Romney to win a narrow majority in the Electoral College. Only two of the nine Republicans who took or look likely to take a Senate seat from the Democrats met or exceeded that target.
The negative message rallied the Romney voters, and in a year when most of the Senate seats in play were in deep red states that was all that was needed. But the Republican wave was less successful in the swing states the party needs to recapture to win the presidency.
Four such states had competitive Senate races last week, and the GOP won only two of them. Virginia and New Hampshire stayed in Democratic hands, and even victorious Cory Gardner in purple Colorado fell short of a majority of the vote. Only Joni Ernst of Iowa won a swing state Senate seat comfortably enough to presage a 2016 victory.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in swing states, on the other hand, outperformed Romney by much larger margins. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Michigan’s Rick Snyder ran about 6 1/2 points ahead of Romney. Maine Gov. Paul LePage ran seven points ahead, and the GOP challengers in Illinois and Maryland emerged winners by running 10 and 15 points ahead of Mitt.
The gubernatorial victors tended to campaign on a mix of fiscal conservatism and active government that isn’t quite the standard DC playbook. Walker and Snyder cut taxes during their terms but shied away from the tax-reform ideas promoted in the Beltway.
Winning Republican incumbents in swing states also abandoned the DC playbook on Medicaid expansion. Every one either pushed for Medicaid expansion or, in the case of Scott Walker, reformed his state’s Medicaid program to increase subsidized health-insurance coverage.
This model — positive governance, generally but not dogmatically free-market fiscal policies — seems to meet the public mood more than the liberal or conservative models Washington have on tap. Voters don’t want to massively expand the federal government, but they also don’t want to tear it up root and branch.
This approach is very different from the one the party offered in its losing efforts after midterm waves. In each case, the party’s congressional majority tried to seriously restructure the existing government structure, provoking presidential backlash that each incumbent used to his advantage on the campaign trail. Dewey, Dole and Romney in effect were passive candidates hoping the midterm momentum would carry them through. Each was cruelly disappointed, and both Dewey and Romney were shocked when they lost by decisive margins on Election Day.
For all her faults, Hillary is not Obama. She can and will distance herself from him on the trail and try to regain the center. Republicans must compete effectively with her for that ground, and the governors’ model is the best way to do it.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.