Even as Republicans bask in victory and Democrats try to recover from shell-shock, the greater implications of this election are starting to crystallize. It’s early, but three lessons particularly stand out.
1 - It’s the economy, stupid. Again
Polling has been consistent – economic insecurity, and in particular white, blue collar voters’ anxiety, drove the Republican vote. Although roughly 2/3 of the electorate stayed home, the growing uncertainty of Americans in the middle and working classes – squeezed by an economy in secular transition and stagnant wages – made these voters immune to the real progress the economy has made since the Great Recession threatened to turn into another massive depression.
Understanding that there is a sour mood in the land, Republicans effectively used economic anxiety to talk down the economy – which ironically grew at its fastest rate over the two previous quarters than at any time in the last 10 years.
Democrats, meanwhile, failed to highlight what is true progress in economic growth, employment opportunities and their party’s concrete measures for saving the middle class. Instead, they were spooked by the same negative mood that the GOP exploited so brilliantly. They reduced their over-arching economic plan to morsels – minimum wage, interest rate relief for students, equal pay for women, etc. – which polled well individually, but failed to coalesce into a grand vision that spurred Americans to support them with their votes.
2 - Latinos are lousy voters – and Democrats are ineffective at turning them out
Once again, most of the American Latino community failed to perform its most basic civic duty – voting. Complaining and whining, a majority of Latino voters stayed home. Not helping matters, Spanish-language media, sometimes incapable of decoding and explaining basic American politics, convinced millions of Latinos that President Obama, and by extension all Democrats, could not be trusted any more than the Republicans.
Missing from that flawed narrative is the basic fact that Speaker John Boehner, corralled by the Tea Party extremist in his party, was incapable to bringing the bipartisan Senate immigration bill to a vote, effectively exercising the Speaker’s legislative veto against immigration reform.
Also, feeding the grumbling disillusion of Latino voters were small, media savvy fringe groups (very popular with Spanish-language media) claiming to represent all Latinos – and urging a boycott of the vote because of Obama’s decision to delay immigration executive action. Now, while these boycotts are classic tactics in the dysfunctional democracies in many Latin American countries, the call for a boycott of a national election is alien to American history and values. And as a political concept, this “strategy” does not rise above the level of a bad joke.
But the Democrats did their part in suppressing Latino turnout, too. Besides the rhetorical calls for Latino support, Democrats were hardly interested in actually doing the work of motivating these voters. One prominent Democrat that bit the dust last Tuesday, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, did not have an actual Hispanic outreach effort until a few weeks before the election. Incomprehensibly, he did not learn the lesson of Colorado’s other Senator, Michael Bonnet, who won his seat in 2010 because of a robust, brilliantly executed Hispanic outreach campaign, or even the example of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that was particularly successful in motivating Latino voters in 2010, an election that he was supposed to lose.
3 - Immigration was a major issue – and that’s bad for Republicans
Senator Ted Cruz vowed to make the 2014 election into a “referendum” on what he calls “amnesty” – otherwise known as comprehensive immigration reform. He actively supported candidates that took the same anti-immigrant line, and recently threatened to cause a Constitutional crisis if President Obama goes forward, as expected, with executive action that will provide relief to millions of undocumented people.
Clearly, with only roughly a third of the electorate voting, the claim of a “referendum” is meaningless. In fact, immigration was not front and center for non-Hispanic voters in most elections.
For example, Scott Brown, in his newly adopted state of New Hampshire, tried to use the “insecure border” meme and the evidence-free supposed entry from Mexico of Ebola infected people as a campaign issue, but it clearly did not wash with the electorate.
And that’s a problem for Republicans. By simultaneously painting immigrants as diseased sleeper cells for ISIS, as Congressman Steve King (R-IA) prominently did, and failing to propose an alternative to the Senate’s immigration bill, the reputation of Republicans among Latinos has suffered once again.
The GOP’s “Hispanic Problem” only got worse after this election cycle. Victory is a terrible teacher, but for Republicans, even after their famous 2012 election disaster autopsy that called for not alienating Latinos, defeat is apparently not a catalyst for adopting new big tent strategies either.
Elections have consequences – and the Republican take-over of the Congress is a transcendent moment in American politics. Will the GOP transition into a governing party over the next two years or will it remain divided and pushed around by the radical right-wing so well represented by Senator Cruz?
We’re about to find out.