WASHINGTON — Republicans had reason to revel the day after the midterms, after engineering a near-perfect rout on election night. They secured a robust Senate majority, systematically knocked off well-funded Democratic incumbents and easily shored up their numbers in the GOP-controlled House — with unflinching fidelity to the message that even if he was invisible on ballots, the races were all about the policies of President Barack Obama.
But now the burden is on the new congressional majority to begin governing, a task made more difficult by a campaign cycle remarkably bereft of a single theme. Instead of forwarding their own policy proposals, most successful GOP candidates were content to spend most of their time hammering Obama, and their opponents for siding with him.
This time there was no Contract for America, the document unveiled during the 1994 midterm election that outlined exactly what a new GOP majority hoped to accomplish if they took over the House. There was no 2010 Pledge to America, a 48-page document that again detailed the Republicans’ vision for governance.
Voters on Tuesday appeared to be acting on a general disenchantment with the direction of the country — unlike in 2010, when anger over the Affordable Care Act and government overreach swept Republicans into office, or in 2006, when the Iraq War allowed Democrats to overthrow the GOP in Congress.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a mandate. Republicans didn’t win because of who they were,” said former GOP Virginia Congressman Tom Davis. “They won because of who they were not. It is not an endorsement of Republicans, they’re just the alternative. That’s what midterms are traditionally about.”
That leaves it to soon-to-be anointed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and other party leaders to prove the GOP can legislate and design an agenda that can get the consensus of a rancorous caucus, with competing interests, going into 2016.
Several Senate and House Republicans will face difficult re-elections, competing in typically blue states and districts in a presidential election year when there is expected to be higher turnout among traditionally Democratic-leaning constituencies. Congressional conservatives will, as always, need to appease their base. Meanwhile, lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., will have potential presidential runs to think about, while newcomers like Cory Gardner, senator-elect from Colorado, and Joni Ernst, senator-elect from Iowa, try to make their way in the upper chamber. Ernst said on the campaign trail she would be in favor of eliminating the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. But whether she’ll get to act on that idea remains an open question.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, McConnell vowed to "get the Senate working again," while putting the onus on Obama to cooperate with Congress. He also promised that there would be no shutdowns or defaults on the national debt on his watch.
"Divided government is not a reason to do nothing," he said, citing tax reform and international trade agreements as areas where he hopes to work with the president. "Reagan and Clinton are good examples of dealing with the government you have, not fantasizing about the government you wish you had. The choice is really [Obama's]."
Congressional Republicans must also avoid the president's veto pen if they plan to actually pass laws — it they do not have the numbers to override it.
“They will put some bills on his desk and he will have to react to it, starting with the KXL pipeline,” Davis said. “It will force a direct confrontation because the Senate has kept so many things away from him up until now.”
Republicans have offered a few early hints as to what they hope to accomplish. Days before the election, Boehner released a five-point roadmap that included tax reform, deficit reduction — including changes to entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Social Security — regulatory reform, tort reform and “improving our education system,” notably leaving out any mention of the Affordable Care Act, which the House has voted to repeal more than 50 times. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, on the other hand, said in a speech in early October that replacing the Affordable Care Act was a priority, in addition to passing a constitutional amendment compelling Congress to balance the budget and boost job growth by cutting regulations and taxes.
Cruz, for one, insisted that his fellow Republicans hew to their principles.
“I hope come January, Republicans stand united, we stand as one, and we systemically, one after the other, vote on positive, pro-growth ideas,” he said on Fox News on Tuesday night. “We vote on tax reform, regulatory reform; we vote on embracing the American energy renaissance; we vote on going after and stopping Obamacare; we deliver on the promises that Republicans campaigned on.”
Meanwhile, immigration reform — Obama's top priority for his second term and once an issue that garnered bipartisan support — has been conspicuously absent as Republicans take their victory lap. Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the immigration advocacy organization America's Voice, said she is not holding her breath.
"They’re not going to compromise. They’re not going to let anything reasonable move in the Senate," she said, urging the president to move forward on long-promised executive actions on immigration reform. "The idea that Republicans would reverse their voting records and give Obama a win on something that he’s been pushing away for years — it doesn’t pass the laugh test."
Most observers said they did not expect any sort of post-election bipartisan calm to suddenly descend on the capital, wiping away years of partisan hostility now that Republicans were no longer the minority.
“It is abundantly clear that these candidates universally ran on opposition to Barack Obama’s policies, and it is very clear voters were not looking for accommodation or bipartisan kumbaya,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “They are looking for people who are going to put a check on Barack Obama’s governance.”
Still, Jeff Hauser, spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, said even in a year when Democrats took an undeniable drubbing, Republicans should not mistake their victories for an endorsement of conservative principles. After all, minimum wage hikes — which the GOP has fiercely opposed — passed this cycle in four Republican-leaning states: Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas.
“In an election that was a referendum on how well things are going rather a referendum on Republican ideas, their wins might give the GOP an inflated sense of how popular their actual ideas were,” he said. “They were not the subject of much debate in this election cycle, which is unfortunate.”