With Republicans likely to take the Senate on the back of the “six-year itch,” the lead-up to 2016 is going to reveal whether the GOP can overcome party in-fighting and come up with a unified front to address the nation’s dilemmas.
As early voting in the 2014 midterm elections begins, questions on the composition of the Congress for the final quarter of the Obama presidency are proving increasingly relevant. With gerrymandering making the House non-competitive, and with Senate Democrats facing both the “six-year itch” — which historically tends to work against the party in power — and a larger number of contested seats than the Republicans, popular opinion suggests that the stage is being set for an entrenched battle of wills between the Congress and the White House during the build-up to the 2016 presidential election.
“Republican gains in Congress would make it even more difficult for the president to get controversial legislation passed,” said Michael Dimino, Sr., associate professor of law at Widener University’s School of Law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to MintPress News. “As a result, one would expect the president to try to accomplish even more through the executive branch, that is, using administrative agencies, as a way of bypassing Congress. We might, therefore, see some separation-of-powers controversies as agencies try to extend their authority and congressional Republicans push back.”
Similarly, Dimino pointed out, Republican gains in the Senate would effectively curtail the president’s ability to make judicial and executive agency nominations. Hoping for the election of a Republican president in 2016, the Senate Republicans will likely prevent the seating of important judgeships and Cabinet members, creating a nomination backlog that would likely never be resolved and probably expire unaddressed when President Barack Obama leaves office.
With the potential of a Supreme Court vacancy looming, this puts the president in a peculiar dilemma: leave the seat open, which would make it easier for the conservative caucus of the court to rule, or possibly name a justice that the Senate Republicans would approve of, who may ultimately join the conservative caucus? While calls for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — age 81 — to step down to allow the president to name another liberal to the court have fallen on deaf ears, Justice Stephen Breyer — age 75 — remains a likely candidate for retirement within the next decade.
However, should the Republicans win control of the Senate, their lead would only be within one or two votes, thus narrowing control to almost a virtual tie. In practical terms, little will change in regards to the consideration of legislation, due to the automatic filibuster which requires 60 senators to agree for legislation to be considered for a vote. Passage of legislation will still require Democratic consent. Changing this would require the Senate Republicans to overturn the filibuster, which may be a fatal move, considering the electoral map for 2016.
Countdown to 2016
The Senate Democrats must defend 21 of the 36 seats up for election this year. Further, they have to do so during President Obama’s second midterm election. Voter fatigue against the party in power historically causes a mini-revolution — with the party out of power typically making significant gains in Congress (see Figure 1). However, the situation will be flipped on its head in 2016, with the Republicans forced to defend 24 of the 34 seats contested. The largest number of Democratic and Independent voters typically come out for presidential elections, so the Senate Republicans would have to face the greatest voter challenge at the same time that they’re most exposed.
The Republicans have been dealing with this in multiple ways. At the state level, many Republican-controlled battleground states have proposed or instituted voting restrictions, including requiring a state-issued photo ID to vote, reducing early voting hours and locations of polling stations, increasing the monitoring of voting stations, and preventing college students from voting outside of their home districts. Citing voting fraud — a statistically non-existent problem in American politics — as a rationale for the law changes, the restrictions, in reality, disenfranchise likely Democratic voters.
This shift in tactics was encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision to rule the preclearance list used by the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, stripping the Department of Justice if its ability to question and block discriminatory legislation from states and communities historically most likely to pass them. Congress has yet to introduce a fix for the Voting Rights Act.
Many of these changes have successfully been defeated in court, but some still remain on the books. On Oct. 18, for example — without explanation from the justices — the Supreme Court ruled to deny lifting the stay on a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to rule Texas’ photo identification law discriminatory and, in effect, a “poll tax.” The decision was stayed or postponed until after the November elections by the 5th Circuit. The decision caused Justice Ginsburg to issue a blistering six-page dissent in rebuke of the decision, which was also signed by Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the Republicans are hoping that once they have control over the bills introduced by Congress, they can show that they are willing to fix the nation’s problems and act in ways the Democrats are either unwilling or unable to.
“The ‘blame game’ will be played out over the next two years, and the GOP will have to exercise all their communication skills in order to show voters that it has the best solutions to the nation’s problems,” said Edward Hudgins, director of advocacy for the libertarian think tank the Atlas Society and author of “The Republican Party’s Civil War: Will Freedom Win?,” to MintPress. “But the real challenge the GOP faces is what message, what policies, what vision of the future will it offer leading up to the 2016 elections?”
It is the hope of the congressional Republicans that if the president is forced to veto the bills the House has passed, but were previously blocked by the Senate, it would put the Democrats on the defensive, forced to issue potentially harmful defenses of controversial policy decisions, such as the Affordable Care Act and blocks to cuts to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Putting the Democrats on the “hot seat” for these issues may make a difference in the battleground states and rile up the conservative base.
A Republican Party in crisis
However, all of this relies on the Republicans taking the Senate this year. If they fail, a different reality will be facing the GOP. As explained by Hudgins, with the Republicans splintered three ways by internal fighting, there is no unified face to present to the public. The Republicans today must rely on fumbles from the Democrats to advance the ball.
“Further, the GOP is in a demographic death spiral,” Hudgins continued. “For example, half of GOP primary voters in 2012 were white evangelicals, a declining portion of the overall population. Some 29 percent of voters 50 to 64 years old fell into this group, while only 8 percent had no religious affiliation. But, of voters 18 to 29, only 12 percent were white evangelicals, while 35 percent had no religious affiliation.”
He noted that this last group are “the voters of the future” and they are “socially liberal.”
“Some 60 percent of young Republicans support same-sex marriage. Yet, while 43 percent of voters that age supported George W. Bush in 2004, only 37 percent supported Mitt Romney. Many of these young people are new entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley types who love their work, who love to make money, but who will not associate with a GOP perceived to be dominated by the religious right,” he said.
Additionally, the Republicans are continuing to lose Hispanic support while making no real inroads into the black community. With the majority of the party still opposed to remedying the Voting Rights Act, addressing comprehensive immigration reform, or finding solutions to the nation’s poverty issues, the GOP is seeing its support base shrink year by year. Winning the Senate this year will allow the Republicans to ignore these issues and ride it out a while longer. However, a loss of this opportunity will force the party to reconsider its strategies, which could potentially cause the intraparty civil war to explode.
“If Republicans fail to win majority control of the Senate, this will amount to a huge defeat for the party, given the high public disapproval ratings of President Obama,” said Alain Sanders, political science professor at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, to MintPress.
Sanders pointed out that a loss by the Republicans this year will force the party to re-evaluate its strategy ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, which may further alienate the Tea Party and the party’s Libertarians.
“On the other hand, if Republicans win control of the Senate, they will have control of the entire Congress and be in a position to take the offensive and strongly challenge President Obama at every turn,” Sanders added. “To challenge the president in a politically strategic way would require that Republicans develop a positive plan for governing rather than continue to pursue a negative opposition strategy of simply saying no to every Obama proposal. Republicans, in short, would have to demonstrate that they can run the country and do so responsibly.”
There’s another problem the Republicans face, as well. While the Republican control of the House is currently undefeatable (see Figure 2), the party’s future health is wholly dependent on the 2020 presidential elections. The House district map is drawn by the states’ legislatures based on data from the decennial census. Data from the 2020 U.S. Census will be made available in 2021, meaning that the legislatures in control at that time will draw the districts that will either keep the Republicans in power in the House or shift the leadership. As the Democrats have won the majority of votes in House elections nationwide for the last three cycles, this is a crucial point for Republicans.
The problem is that Democrats, according to this year’s gubernatorial races, are poised to make a strong comeback in the statehouses (see Figure 3). With Republicans having to defend 22 of the 36 seats contested this year, the state Republicans are being forced to deal with the weaknesses of their platform without the benefits of being able to use presidential fatigue as a smokescreen. As such, nine Republican gubernatorial seats are considered competitive, compared to just three Democratic seats.
Breakdown of key races in 2014
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is currently facing Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis for the seat vacated by a retiring Rick Perry, who has suggested a possible presidential run in 2016. While stumbles — such as Davis’ perceived mocking of Abbott being in a wheelchair in a political ad — have relegated this race to continuing the Texas Republicans’ two-decade dominance in state offices, Davis’ projected strong finish may suggest the beginning of a resurgence for Texas Democrats. As the state’s Hispanic population grows, so does its Democratic base.
Unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is facing an uphill battle toward reelection. While a base upswing has halved the once 22-point deficit Corbett had on Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, polling suggests that Wolf should win this election with room to spare.
The retirement of current Gov. Jan Brewer has led to a tightly contested gubernatorial race in Arizona, with Republican candidate Doug Ducey leading by six points, with 11 percent of voters still undecided. Multiple polling sources show a dead heat between Ducey, the current state treasurer, and his Democratic challenger, Fred DuVal. In this deeply red state, such a weak lead reflects voters’ lack of faith in Ducey, which may play out on Election Day.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is currently in the fight of his life against his Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Even though Lundergan Grimes has been effectively portrayed as a career politician by the McConnell camp — in contrast of the outsider persona she sought to convey — and Lundergan Grimes has trailed behind McConnell in 14 of the last 15 published polls, many feel that the young upstart can beat McConnell. This confidence is felt so strongly that the Democratic National Committee reversed its decision to pull advertising money from the Lundergan Grimes’ campaign. While it is possible that McConnell may win in the end, the unpopular senator will be scarred from this fight, which would show vulnerability in the Republican leadership.
The removal of the Democratic Senate nominee from the ballot tightened up what would have been an easy reelection bid for incumbent Pat Roberts. Plagued by allegations that he does not even live in Kansas anymore and allusions that he is the epitome of a Washington insider, Roberts curried the help of the national Republicans and large infusions of outside money to eke out a half-point lead on independent challenger Greg Orman. By going hard right to counter Orman, however, some analysts feel that Roberts fatally painted himself into a corner. Without moderate support, Roberts cannot beat Orman, who has universal support from the state Democrats and left-leaning moderates. Yet this is an improvement from where Roberts was a month ago, when Orman was airing ads unchallenged by Roberts.
With early voting now open, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn and Republican candidate David Perdue are at a statistical tie for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. With Nunn’s three-point lead within the margin of error, and with neither Nunn nor Perdue polling over 50 percent, a run-off is likely. This reflects a hard road Republicans are being forced to travel this year in Georgia. Meanwhile, the gubernatorial race between incumbent Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter — the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter — is also too close to call.