Midterm Disaster

11.05.14 5:50 AM ET

Inside the Democrats’ Godawful Midterm Election Wipeout

From Arkansas to North Carolina, they crashed harder Tuesday night than they did even in the horror show that was 2010. Why they’re screwed with working-class whites—and Obama is toast.

You knew at 7 p.m., when it took MSNBC (not Fox—MSNBC) all of about 16 seconds to call Kentucky for Mitch McConnell over Alison Lundergan Grimes, that it was going to be a long, hard night for Democrats. And then for a little while, little shafts of light broke through. Jeanne Shaheen held on! Kay Hagan was ahead! That jerk Pennsylvania governor lost! But hmmm, what’s this Virginia business? And then, by 10:30, the proportions of the wipeout, while not yet exactly clear, were enough in view that those of us who do what I do could start writing our pieces for Wednesday morning.

And boy, what an hour it was from 10:30 to 11:30. Suddenly Shaheen didn’t have it in the bag anymore (in the end she did win). Hagan fell behind (and lost). Scott Walker won in Wisconsin. Rick Scott, ugh, won reelection in Florida. So long, Medicaid expansion to 800,000 people (yeah, I know, Scott said he was for it; let’s just see). Illinois tossed out its Democratic governor. Pat Roberts held on by a thread.

Worse than 2010. Yep. Worse than 2010. The Democrats lost the Maryland governorship?!?

There are a lot of choices for where to start surveying the Democratic wreckage, but I want to open with Arkansas, because something interesting happened there that suggests the true depth of the Democratic problem in red states. Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor got hammered by Republican Tom Cotton. It was called for Cotton the instant the polls closed. Ended up around 15 points. Blowout.

And yet this same Arkansas electorate voted nearly two-to-one to back a minimum-wage increase. How can these two results be reconciled? In part, Cotton played this very slick. He said during the campaign that “as a citizen” he’d vote for the minimum-wage increase, which he called, quizzically, “that initiated act.” But he then went on to signal clearly to the kinds of people who dumped nearly $7 million in dark money into his campaign that they shouldn’t really sweat it, what he’d just said: “The minimum wage should be a floor and a stepping stone to higher-wage jobs, not a ceiling. And the way we create that kind of economy is not through higher taxes and regulations and laws like Obamacare, but through less taxes, through smarter regulations.” In other words, he’s going to do their bidding, he just needed to say this to get elected.

Maybe this was an opportunity for Pryor? OK, he supported the state initiative, like Cotton. But he also opposed the federal minimum wage. I’d love to argue that Pryor should have just had the stones to back the federal minimum wage so he could draw a contrast with Cotton. Would love to. But I honestly can’t. Cotton would have beaten him by more, probably. Because that minimum-wage hike was a project of the federal government, and that means that you-know-who was for it.

I’m not going where you (especially if you’re conservative) suspect I’m going with this—the standard liberal moan that working-class white people are voting against their interests. That’s something Democrats have to get out of their heads and stop saying. People don’t vote against their interests. They vote for their interests as they see them. And right now, working-class and blue-collar whites think the Democratic Party is just implacably against them.

Of course I don’t think it’s true that the Democratic Party is implacably against them. I think they just think the Democratic Party is implacably against them, and part of the reason—not the whole reason, but part of the reason—they think the Democratic Party is implacably against them is that Democratic candidates in red states have no idea how to tell them they’re on their side.

Look at this map. This is something The New York Times posted a week ago showing the percentage of people who gained health insurance under Obamacare, broken down into every county in the country. Look at the map, and look at Kentucky. Huge gains. Just huge. Throughout the state, the percentage of insured doubled in many counties. The Democratic Party has been implacably for the people—in this state, most of them white—who got insurance.

And yet, could Alison Grimes go around the state bragging about this? No, she couldn’t. It’s Obama and race, yes. For sure. But it’s more. It’s hatred of government. In a lot of places, you can’t even get people to believe that Washington had anything to do with them getting insurance. So they sent back to the Senate, by a shockingly high margin, the man who has pledged that he’s going to repeal root and branch the law that got them that insurance.

The Democrats are screwed with these people, in these states. And they’re even screwed with these people (and there are plenty of them) in the blue states, and that will keep mattering as long as the blue people don’t turn out in midterm years. That, as I wrote the other day, is a big problem the Democrats have to figure out. This much-vaunted turnout operation turns out not to have deserved much vaunt.

Of course, the Republicans are screwed in a lot of places, too. In fact, they’re screwed in more places, it’s worth remembering, with a lot more people and a hell of a lot more electoral votes. And they’re likely to find that out in 2016.

Yes, 2016. The race starts Wednesday, of course. Maybe with Hillary and Bill, the Democrats can get back some of these voters. Maybe it really is that simple. You get people with white skin and the man has a drawl and reminds them of a time when they were younger and thinner, and some of these voters feel more comfortable with Democrats again. Not enough that Democrats can win Arkansas, God knows, but maybe enough that they can nail down North Carolina again. The media will be full of stories in the next few days about whether Obama will drag Hillary Clinton down for 2016. Could be, but I doubt it. She’s her own brand. As long as the economy isn’t awful, and Benghazi is still a punch line for Jon Stewart, she can survive this.

But what about Obama? He’s done as far as any new initiatives are concerned. He probably can’t do this immigration reform-by-fiat now. They’ll impeach him for sure. All he can do now is try to protect health care and try to make this ISIS war work. There might be some opportunities on trade and tax policy, but those will exist about 75 percent on Republican turf. And emphasis on “might”: The Republicans, McConnell’s pretty speech to the contrary, won’t want to work with Obama on anything. Their interest, as ever, is in pushing the perception that Washington is dysfunctional. It works for them. It worked Tuesday night. It worked in 2010. They want Americans to perceive Washington as broken, especially heading into 2016. There’s no better simplistic argument for “change.” Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way. You expect them to change?