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After midterm dust settles, fog lingers over 2016 presidential field

Crystal ball a little murky, but analysts point to silver linings for Hillary Clinton and the GOP's ‘shrill element’

The Democrats’ monumental collapse in Tuesday’s midterm elections is great news for the 2016 presidential prospects of likely party standard bearer Hillary Clinton. Or the GOP’s sweeping triumph this week is analogous to the 2006 Democratic wave that preceded the election of Barack Obama, providing hopeful signs that Republicans will take back the White House. Those are among the various interpretations of the 2014 election results — which rest upon such unknowable variables as how a lame-duck president will interact with a Republican-dominated Congress and whether the disparate elements of the GOP will collaborate or descend into civil war.

“Why don’t you ask what the weather will be like on Election Day 2016?” said University of Michigan political science professor Michael Heaney. “All of this depends on a multitude of political actors and how they will play the hands that are dealt to them.”

Some analysts do believe there is an obvious silver lining for Clinton. The midterms clearly did not mint any significant threats to her expected path to the Democratic nomination — potential rival Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York did not have the sort of landslide re-election that might have emboldened him — and the lousy showing for her party gives her a clear strategy of distancing herself from Obama by reviving her 2008 argument that she was the better, more competent Democrat for the job. That was, however, the same tactic employed by Arizona Sen. John McCain after losing the GOP nomination in 2000 and earning it in 2008, and he was still unable to overcome the public’s fatigue with the Republican president he hoped to succeed. Had the midterms been a show of support for Obama, as they were for President Bill Clinton in 1998, distancing herself from the incumbent might have been harder to do, as Vice President Al Gore discovered in the 2000 race.

“This election shows that people are very dissatisfied with the Democrats and with President Obama in particular, so that gives Hillary Clinton a kind of campaign strategy in which she talks about the differences between her and Obama and what she would have done differently, how she would take the country in a different direction,” said Michael Dimino Sr., a law professor at Widener Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and an expert in voting rights and election law. “The biggest thing for Mrs. Clinton to figure out is how to paint herself as being a non-Obama Democratic presidential candidate.”

Democrats have soothed themselves in the aftermath of the 2014 elections by noting how severely low the turnout was and how much higher it is likely to be in a presidential year, particularly if the first major-party female presidential nominee is on the ballot. Yet both sides should be wary, said Villanova University political science professor Matthew Kerbel. While Democrats hold significant advantages going into 2016 because of their domination in the fast-growing demographic of Hispanic voters, the party needs to figure out a strategy beyond that or be condemned to “more cycles of bingeing and purging,” in which the parties take turns having big years, as has been the case since 2006. “They will need to think about what they can do to turn out their supporters” in nonpresidential years, he said. “Giving them something to vote for would be a good place to start.”

‘Leadership will have to juggle their right-leaning interests with the need for blue-state Republicans to appear moderate ... It will probably get ugly.’

Matthew Kerbel

professor, political science, Villanova University

Among the key variables to watch is whether Obama and the GOP-run Congress will engage in sincere efforts at bipartisanship that result in genuine achievements in areas like infrastructure spending and immigration reform. The president and likely incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky both talked that talk on Wednesday, but few observers believe more stridently conservative or obstructionist GOP figures in the House and Senate will allow their leadership to make compromises Obama would accept.

“The new Senate majority will include at least two and possibly three Republican presidential aspirants” — namely Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — “who will try to woo a radicalized base, along with a larger tea party caucus,” Kerbel said. “Leadership will have to juggle their right-leaning interests with the need for blue-state Republicans to appear moderate. This won’t be easy, because the rules of the Senate give individual senators great power over the agenda. It will probably get ugly.”

McConnell asserted Wednesday there won’t be any government shutdowns or debt-ceiling brinksmanship in the coming congressional term, but that may not be something he can control, and an inability to do so will only make his party appear  less capable of governing.

“The sweep in the Senate does not change the configuration that shut down the government, that took some 60-odd votes trying to repeal bits and pieces or all of ‘Obamacare,’ that was willing to sacrifice the national economy based on ideology, that took people like Ted Cruz head to head with the president on issue after issue, that was bad, I guess, for the United States in the world economy,” said best-selling author Frank Schaeffer, a former religious conservative and GOP campaign operative who now consults for Democratic candidates. “That kind of shrill element has just been further empowered. It hasn’t been diminished.”

That’s one reason the 2014 midterms failed to clarify who the Republican presidential nominee will be. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who has now won three elections in the past four years, including surviving a 2012 recall attempt and being re-elected on Tuesday — probably will enjoy a bump if he runs for president. But he’s far from the consensus front-runner that George W. Bush became when he enjoyed a resounding re-election as Texas governor in 1998. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, who was not up for re-election this cycle, is seen as a beneficiary of this week’s outcome too. But both men will have to win over a fractious Republican primary electorate that is as divided along the same hard-to-reconcile lines as congressional Republicans, Heaney said.

Still, the size of the GOP wave — seen in Tuesday’s routing of Democratic gubernatorial candidates and shifts in control of state legislatures to Republicans in six states — is especially bad news for Democrats, even if there’s a national resurgence in 2016 that allows them to retain the White House and make gains in Congress. Republicans’ long-term efforts to bolster their local organizations and promulgate conservative policies from state capitals has left them with far more power, regardless of who occupies the White House, said Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer.

Control of more state legislatures also gives Republicans control over once-a-decade congressional redistricting, which they have used for the past two decades to draw districts that are nearly impossible for Democrats to win, she noted. If Democrats don’t regain some of that power by 2022, she said, they will continue to struggle to win back the House.

“I really wonder if the Republicans have given up altogether” on winning the presidency, Greer said. “The Republican Party has looked at the electoral map and realized it is very difficult for them to win. But they have their statehouses, their governorships and their judges. And now they control Congress. What’s the point of being the president?”

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