The 2014 GOP tsunami is the fourth time since World War II that Republicans have picked up control of at least one house of Congress in what can be called a midterm “wave election.” In each previous case—1946, 1994, 2010—a Democrat held the White House and Republicans thought the wave presaged his subsequent defeat. Each time, however, the Democrat won reelection relatively easily.
Conservatives who want to prevent history from repeating itself with yet another Democratic victory should learn from these failures. In each case, conservative overreach and establishment complacency combined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The period from 1946 to 1948 illustrates this pattern. The 1946 election gave the GOP control of Congress for the first time since 1930, with gains of 55 seats in the House and twelve in the Senate. Most of the House gains (41 seats) came from the manufacturing-based, working-class areas of the North and Midwest. Despite this, the GOP leadership immediately focused on making the nation’s major labor law much less favorable to unions, by passing the Taft-Hartley Act. It was a great piece of legislation, but, as a political matter, it was a classic example of biting the hands that fed you. Voters who had just supported the GOP for the first time since the Great Depression immediately found an institution they respected under assault.
Republicans were nonetheless expected to win the 1948 presidential election. The GOP establishment rallied behind the 1944 nominee, New York governor Tom Dewey, and procured his renomination. But Dewey pushed through a platform well to the left of his party and then failed to make a positive case for this platform on the campaign trail. Truman called the GOP Congress back into special session and dared it to pass the Republican platform. It refused, allowing Truman to label it the “Do-Nothing Congress” and present Democrats as the only sure defenders of the average man.
Election Night was a disaster for Republicans. Dewey received a smaller percentage of the vote than he had gotten four years earlier, even losing five states he had previously carried. The GOP Congress also was rejected: House Republicans lost 75 seats and Senate Republicans lost nine. House Republicans lost 27 seats in the Northeast and 26 more in the industrial Midwest, more than reversing their 1946 gains.
The 1994–96 and 2010–12 eras reprised this failed approach. In both cases, the new House Republican majority immediately made cutting entitlements and dramatically reducing discretionary domestic spending their main priorities. In both cases, the Democratic president fought back and improved his standing with the public compared with his standing just before the midterm. The GOP-establishment choice—Dole in 1996, Romney in 2012—won the Republican nomination both times, but both times ran a colorless campaign that neither defended the House Republican effort nor offered a cogent, principled, conservative alternative. Clinton and Obama were comfortably reelected.
Republicans have failed to capitalize on their midterm waves because each wing of the party has misinterpreted the voters’ verdict. Midterm waves are primarily negative verdicts. Voters are unhappy with what they see and they want it to stop.
The conservative wing of the party, however, tends to interpret such victories as positive endorsements of a new direction. It presumes that voters who two years ago voted for the Democratic incumbent but are unhappy with what they have seen since then will now endorse policies that they have already rejected. Going too far too fast, the conservatives cause new supporters to reconsider their allegiance, thereby setting up the Democratic nominee to pose as the defender of a comfortable status quo.
The establishment wing makes the opposite mistake. It understands that a midterm election is primarily a referendum on the administration, but it fails to understand that presidential elections are about new visions and new agendas. Moreover, the establishment tends to overreact to the conservative overreach, distancing itself from both the policy proposals and the enthusiasm for change that the base and the new supporters want. Running on “pale pastels” consisting of lukewarm endorsements of old policies and condemnations of the administration does not give the base or the swing voters the new alternative they desperately want.
Conservatives and establishmentarians who want to escape this cycle of disappointment should look carefully at the different lessons that this year’s races for the Senate and for the governorships can teach us.
Republican Senate campaigns were negative and based largely on tying the Democratic candidate to President Obama. This was a sound strategy to win seats for the GOP, since most of the states in play had gone heavily for Romney. There is little evidence, however, that this strategy added many voters to the GOP column. Republican candidates in eight of the 13 pickups or contested races ran even with or behind Romney’s 2012 performance. Since Romney lost the national popular vote by about four points, that’s not an encouraging sign for 2016.
Even those candidates who ran ahead of Romney tended not to run far enough ahead to indicate that the 2016 GOP nominee would win their state. Because the Electoral College tilts slightly to the Democrats, the nominee needs to run about 2.7 percentage points ahead of Romney in the popular vote to win an Electoral College majority. Only Iowa’s Joni Ernst bested that mark on Election Night, running six points ahead of Romney in the Hawkeye State.
Republican gubernatorial candidates fared much better. The ones in deep-blue states ran ten to 15 points ahead of Romney, winning the governor’s mansions in Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Incumbents in Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, and Ohio, all purple states, did not even attract well-funded challengers, allowing them to cruise home. Most important, embattled Rick Snyder of Michigan and Scott Walker of Wisconsin won comfortably, each running close to 6.4 points ahead of Romney in his state.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in purple states tended to govern or run campaigns that neither overreached nor were complacent. Every Republican incumbent in a purple state either endorsed the Medicaid expansion or, in the case of Scott Walker, expanded the number of state-subsidized insurance enrollees by reforming an existing program. None of the purple-state governors tried to substantially restructure state versions of universal entitlements, such as K–12 education, higher ed, and Medicaid.
That does not mean they were simply “me too,” go-along governors. Most cut taxes for individuals and for businesses. Scott Walker defeated his state’s public-employee unions in an epic battle that garnered national attention. Rick Snyder signed a right-to-work bill sent to him by the GOP legislature, a politically risky move in the state that launched the auto-workers’ union.
A federal-government version of the governors’ model could be both substantive and appealing. It could propose to repeal Obamacare and offer a conservative, market-based alternative that increases coverage and deregulates health care. It could tackle limited entitlements—the ones, such as disability insurance, that serve only a minority of Americans and discourage work. Instead of a comprehensive tax reform that inevitably will be hard to understand, create millions of losers (those whose taxes will go up) and give most of the tax savings to the people who pay most of the taxes—the rich—it could focus on corporate-tax reduction and other reforms that will help business without creating losers among voters. And it could use federal financial power—by, for example, allowing students in non-traditional educational programs to have access to subsidized student loans and grants—to open the tenured-faculty cartel to competition from lower-cost, vocationally focused education providers.
“Repeal and replace” would increase the number of people who have health insurance and set market forces to work in reducing health-care costs over time for all Americans. Disability-insurance programs now cost the federal government over $200 billion a year; people receiving disability benefits also often receive Medicare. Reforming Social Security Disability Insurance along the lines of welfare reform would both increase the number of Americans leaving dependency for work and slow down the cost growth of Social Security and Medicare. Corporate-tax cuts and reform would help encourage business investment, thereby creating jobs, and—because corporate tax rates are less of a political lightning rod than individual rates—would avoid reinforcing the perception that the GOP is primarily the party of the wealthy. And higher-ed deregulation and reform would give people currently dropping out of college the type of education they really want while reducing the cost of college for everyone. These initiatives would advance conservative priorities and appeal to the swing voters who have supported both Obama and Republican governors.
When voters say no to one party, they want to say yes to the other party in a way that does not require them to reject the primary reasons for their earlier allegiance. Ronald Reagan was a master of helping them do that. In 1980, he offered a vision of an America that would be safer and more prosperous, but he did not reject the safety net that voters had grown to value. The wave that produced his election returned for his landslide reelection in 1984, setting the stage for conservative victories to come. Republicans today should not waste their opportunity to establish conditions for a similar long-term success.
– Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.