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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Republican tsunami has for the moment made the GOP the glad party and Democrats the sad party. But if past is prologue, both parties are in trouble. Their weaknesses are still with them, awaiting attention before the next big test in 2016. Here are five midterm lessons that the parties should heed.

• Republicans have a substance problem and Democrats have a messaging problem. President Barack Obama’s agenda was indeed on the ballot and it did very well — when it showed up directly on the ballot, minus any candidate or party affiliation. Washington state voters approved expanded gun background checks. North Carolina and Colorado voters rejected “personhood amendments” that might have led to bans on abortion and limits on birth control. In four red states — Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska — voters approved raises in the minimum wage. In Massachusetts, they voted to require paid sick leave.

What does this tell us? The Democrats’ agenda does well when it is not linked to them or Obama. Clearly they need to make a different and stronger case, and hope their brand becomes less toxic. For Republicans, the successful initiatives are a reminder that their rightward drift on economic and social issues is not broadly popular. Among voters who chose GOP Senate candidates this week, according to the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, 61 percent support a paycheck fairness act meant to help underpaid women and the same percentage support allowing people to refinance old student loans. Republicans have blocked both proposals in the Senate.

• Mitch McConnell is looking at a John Boehner problem. The House Speaker has been famously unable to corral his Tea Party contingent. McConnell, on the verge of becoming Senate majority leader, is going to be in the same predicament except multiplied exponentially. At least three senators associated with the Tea Party movement — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — are expected to run for president in a primary process heavily influenced in early states by conservative activists. Cruz, a de facto advisor to House Tea Party disrupters, told The Washington Post he would aim to make a GOP Senate as confrontational as the GOP House.

On top of that, at least six new senators — Joni Ernst of Iowa, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and David Perdue of Georgia — were endorsed by Tea Party groups. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin said their wins proved that “Tea Party support is essential to the success of the Republican Party.” She added: “You’re welcome, GOP. Now keep your promises.”

• Democrats were the ones with candidate-quality problems this year. They had flawed nominees in winnable states (Martha Coakley for Massachusetts governor, Bruce Braley in the Iowa Senate race). They had candidates who imploded (Wendy Davis for Texas governor) and candidates with late-breaking problems, such as North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (stories about her family receiving federal stimulus money) and Wisconsin governor contender Mary Burke (stories about the circumstances of her departure from Trek, the family-owned bicycle business). A top nominee, Michelle Nunn in the Georgia Senate race, couldn’t even force a runoff.

• The GOP emerges with a stronger national bench for 2016. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker first won a recall election and now has won a second term despite polarizing his state with anti-labor moves. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former congressman who expanded Medicaid in his state under the Affordable Care Act, scored a decisive victory in a key state. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder won a second term in a blue presidential stronghold. And whether he helped create the wave or merely rode it, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — chairman of the Republican Governors Association — has bragging rights in an excellent year. The Democratic bench, never deep, is further depleted. Deep-blue Maryland rejected Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s handpicked successor in favor of a Republican. That could give pause to O’Malley, the only active potential challenger to Hillary Clinton, as he hopscotches from one early primary state to another.

• Democrats have a Ferguson problem. Many presidential-year voters in demographic groups favorable to Democrats sat it out this week, and now they will have to live under a Congress that may not share their views. The Democratic Party worked hard to fix midterm turnout, but it’s still broken. Exit polls show that people under 30 dropped 6 percentage points from 2012 as a share of the electorate, while those aged 30 to 44 declined 5 points. The share of Latino voters shrank 2 points and black voters 1 point, while white voters grew from 72 percent of the electorate to 75 percent. If there’s a way to convince Democratic dropoff voters that these elections should matter to them, no one has found it yet.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

AFP Photo/Win McNamee

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