America seems resigned to a Seinfeld election in 2014—a campaign about nothing.
To an exhausted electorate, the final midterms of the Obama presidency are failing to drive much mainstream excitement, and no clear national themes have emerged despite the high-stakes fight for the Senate. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz essentially admitted as much when she dismissed the idea of Democrats running on any national message, seeking instead to focus on local themes.
It’s hard to spin this a sign of strength. The fact is that Democrats have drawn a bad hand for the Senate races this cycle. They’re set to lose open seats in three states Mitt Romney won easily—South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana—and they’re defending vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina. As for the House, the rigged system of redistricting essentially guarantees that it will remain in Republican hands until after the census of 2020.
But don’t believe the hype about 2014 being a Republican wave election. Something more complex is going on. Democrats are doing much better than they have a right to expect in the South, especially with family brand names like Landrieu and Pryor. Mitch McConnell even has an improbably tight race on his hands in Kentucky against Alison Lundergan Grimes.
More to the point, Democrat Kay Hagan looks strong in North Carolina, where the Tea Party wave of 2010 brought otherwise unified Republican control to this increasingly purple swing state. The state legislative excesses have been bad enough that GOP Governor Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, found himself described as a “moderate among Wingnuts” by The Economist, which detailed his travails this way: “Unlike the pragmatic conservatives who have long dominated state politics, the Republicans now in charge are culture warriors…The governor found himself passing laws to ban sharia (Islamic law), restrict abortion and introduce strict voter-identification rules, which are being challenged by the federal government.”
Here’s where a slumbering national theme for 2014 starts to come into sharper relief. This year represents the first time local voters have been able to weigh in on the statewide elected officials who rode the Tea Party wave to victory in 2010. So while the Senate sucks up all the oxygen, the governors’ races might really reflect the mood of the electorate more accurately.
Seen through this lens, a pattern starts to emerge. Wisconsin’s Scott Waker is frequently talked up by RNC types as a leading 2016 contender, but he’s fighting for his political life at home, beset by a tsunami of scandals and running neck and neck with Mary Burke. Walker’s most-favored Midwestern governor status in D.C. is in trouble despite a misguided arrogance born of his surviving a recall attempt. His efforts to rein in the public sector unions have been successful, but his style and tone—and did I mention scandals—could make him an unexpected loser on Election Night.
In Kansas, Sam Brownback should be cruising to an easy reelection in one of the reddest states in the nation. But the theocon is trailing Democrat Paul Davis because of Brownback’s RINO-hunting purges, social conservative crusades, and what is becoming something of a Waterloo for the idea that all tax cuts pay for themselves. Brownback’s slashing fixation has led to deep deficits, prompting cuts in other struggling areas like education, as detailed by The Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy.
Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott was a Tea Party-wave fluke to begin with. An unlikely messenger for less-government libertarianism, Scott made his fortune by founding the hospital conglomerate Columbia/HCA, which is now best known for the running up the largest Medicaid fraud in the nation’s history, totaling $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties. As the Orlando Sun-Sentinel reported, “Among the fraudulent practices uncovered: billing Medicare and Medicaid for unnecessary lab tests, creating false diagnoses to claim a higher reimbursement and charging for marketing and advertising costs that were disguised as community education.” Scott has struggled to connect with voters in the Sunshine State despite pumping his own dollars into the effort. He’s facing former governor Charlie Crist, a slippery former Republican now apparently liberated by running as a Democrat and quick to call out GOP orthodoxy on climate change and other issues that matter in a diverse state flanked by the sea on three sides.
Pennsylvania is purple personified, and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is collapsing in the Keystone State. The former state attorney general is suffering from a multitude of self-inflicted wounds, but the fact that polling shows him to be the least popular governor in the country—despite presiding over a regional energy boom—is due to a series of missteps, from suing to block Obamacare on constitutional grounds to comparing marriage equality to incest and supporting a controversial voter ID law. Stick a fork in Corbett, he’s done.
Maine’s odd governor, Paul LePage, was also an accident of the Tea Party wave, slipping into office just ahead of independent candidate Eliot Cutler and a distant Democratic candidate in 2010. LePage lost no time in alienating the independent-minded people of Maine, telling the NAACP it could “kiss my butt” before MLK Day, pushing to roll back certain child labor laws, and claiming that President Obama “hates white people.” The governor also has met repeatedly with members of a sovereign citizens militia group the FBI considers a domestic terrorist organization. He ain’t exactly a Maine-style centrist Republican. And the only reason he has anything resembling a prayer in hell of winning reelection is that Cutler and Democrat Mike Michaud are splitting a clear majority of voters who are anti-LePage and want to kick his butt out of office.
Rounding out the geographically diverse list is former congressman and current Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who sidestepped a congressional ethics inquiry by bailing out of the capital dome and still faces a far-closer-than-should-be-expected race from Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason.
Against this backdrop, it’s notable that center-right Republican governors like Iowa’s Terry Branstad, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, and Michigan’s Rick Snyder seem in fine shape for reelection. They’ve been fiscal conservatives, but they’ve shown some flexibility on working with state Democrats and they’re not overly strident social conservatives. It should come as no surprise that the less polarizing the politician, the more likely they’ll be rewarded with crossover support. It’s a lesson the national GOP needs to learn.
So while the biggest story of the 2014 primaries was, by and large, the center-right Senate establishment beating back Tea Party radicals who would have gone down to defeat, à la Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, on the statewide level there are comeuppances coming that undercut overheated pundit claims that 2014 will be a Republican wave election.
Yes, Obama is underwater with approval ratings in the low 40s—but that’s far better than congressional Republicans as a whole. And among incumbents, most Democrats are doing just fine, with the exception of Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Connecticut’s Dan Malloy, who have real races on their hands but are still likely to pull it off because of the overall Democratic drift of their states.
So 2014 isn’t actually a Seinfeld election. Beneath the tough Senate hand dealt to Democrats, there is a lot of swing voter discontent with Tea Party governors who failed to steer toward the center once in office. This dynamic will have an impact on other races and should serve as a reminder to both parties that extremism is a vice in American politics. The populist anger isn’t the same as it was it 2014—the anger is directed more at the inability of polarized, ideologically driven politicians to work together to solve problems. That’s a clear national message playing out in the states right now, if bigwigs in Washington bothered to listen.