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Well, if it wasn’t a wave, it sure was a shellacking. The GOP is now in control of the Senate, and of Obama’s last two years in the Oval office.
The midterm elections were a convincing repudiation of President Obama’s policies; they were also, for Democrats, a worrisome sign that the president's fabled voter coalition has frayed badly. The question is – will blacks, Hispanics, single women and young people return to Democrats in 2016, or are those voters now up for grabs?
Though Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) managed to force a run-off in December, barely hanging on to her seat, and incumbent Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen beat former Senator Scott Walker in New Hampshire, GOP wins in Colorado, Kansas, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia certainly sent President Obama a message. As did Governor Scott Walker’s re-election in Wisconsin and Republican Rick Scott’s victory over Democrat Charlie Crist in Florida’s governor race.
The last contest in particular is a slap to Mr. Obama; the Crist campaign began airing a radio spot just the day before the election, in which the president encouraged black voters to vote. Apparently it had little impact.
Mr. Obama (and his wife) worked hard in the weeks leading up to the election to boost black turnout, considered essential in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. That Republicans in those states either won or came close suggests that even blacks, who recently polled 85% in favor of the president, were uninspired.
Like blacks, women appear to have defected from the president's party. It turns out – thank heavens – that women are not one-issue voters after all. In Kentucky, for instance, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell made the election all about coal – and the gender gap disappeared, even though his challenger was female -- Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Not to mention just 35 years old.)
Mark Udall, Senator from Colorado, became the Poster Boy for going all-in on the GOP War On Women meme. Females in the Mile-High state returned the favor by voting for Republican victor Cory Gardner. Some days before the election, polls showed Udall (nick-named Mark Uterus because of his single-minded attention to abortion and reproductive rights) trailing in the polls, and also losing ground with women (though they still tilted toward the Democrat.)
Not only were women apparently turned off (bored silly?) by Udall’s one-track playlist; the Denver Post surprised everyone by endorsing Gardner, describing Udall’s thrust as an “obnoxious one-issue campaign.”
Gardner helped himself by anticipating Udall’s attacks on his conservative stance on abortion; he countered by abandoning his support for “personhood” legislation in Colorado, and by advocating for over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives – an approach taken up by Republicans in North Carolina and Virginia as well.
The good news here is that Republicans have learned a trick or two about not alienating the 53% of the electorate that is female. No candidate fed the liberal frenzy by talking about “legitimate rape,” a la Todd Akin in 2012; candidates by and large remembered their manners. But make no mistake. Republicans may have handled women’s issues better than in the past couple of election cycles, but the gender gap is alive and well, and will surely be a factor in 2106, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.
It might help the GOP to push education reform. The country is increasingly critical of the shortcomings of our public schools, even if still largely supportive of teachers. Arguing for a change in tenure rules and demanding more accountability could also appeal to Hispanics who, like women, have drifted away from Democrats.
No wonder. To court the Latino community, President Obama promised to push immigration reform but failed to deliver. His politically-motivated balk last summer on protecting more people here illegally from deportation infuriated Hispanics.
To make amends, the president has pledged to broaden the 2012 DACA program – in essence providing temporary amnesty for possibly millions of families by executive order – in coming weeks. Unhappily, the move is sure to infuriate some GOP members of Congress., whose bellicose resistance could undermine efforts by others in the party to reach out to the Hispanic community.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made a high-profile visit to Mexico’s president in September, while Senator Rand Paul visited Guatemala with a team of medical experts, providing eye treatments to the poor.
Similarly, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been pushing for a Mexican consulate, noting the growing cross-border trade in his state. That Mitt Romney only garnered 27% of the Hispanic vote – and that it might have cost him the election – has not gone unnoticed.
And, the youth vote? They defected from Democrats, too, according to a poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Obama’s job approval rating among Millenials has sunk to 43% from 47% last April and is at the second-lowest level ever. Worse news for Dems: likely voters in this crowd favored Republicans over Democrats 51% to 47%. In 2010, Dems won the survey 55% to 43%.
Lack of enthusiasm from these core voter groups helped the GOP take over the Senate. It is encouraging – Republicans need a bigger tent. But, these gains could prove fragile.
Hard-liners on abortion and immigration need to be reminded that winning the White House requires a convincing, positive message that can appeal to the entire country.
A message about growing the economy and reforming our dismal public schools, about reducing red tape and improving our infrastructure – common-sense, popular measures that will help everyone who is willing to work hard to get ahead. The country is hungry for a leader who can take us there.