President Barack Obama has declared that the 2014 midterm reversal for the Democrats in Congress was not because of failed policies but because of inadequate salesmanship.
“I think that one thing that I do need to constantly remind myself and my team of is it’s not enough just to build a better mousetrap,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “People don’t automatically come beating to your door. We’ve got to sell it. We’ve got to reach out to the other side and, where possible, persuade.”
However, this cool, dry analysis does not stand up to the results in the six House elections that Republican professionals told me to watch on election night in order to comprehend the scale of the Republican success. Those contests tell a story of an electorate that either rejected the president and his party or did not bother to vote in its favor.
Those races were especially worth watching because they did not naturally favor Republicans; five of the six were in solidly blue states. The lone red state example, in West Virginia, presented a popular, adept Democratic seventeen-term veteran who easily survived the tea-party-led wave in 2010.
“If we win two or three of these,” a member of the Republican leadership told me, “we are going to have a very good night.”
With one race still too close to call, the Republicans have won three of the six, a spectacular showing, given that each of the districts favored Obama and the Democrats in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Even with some races still undecided across the country, the GOP has gained 13 seats and will enjoy its largest majority in the House since President Herbert Hoover.
What’s more, the Democratic candidates who lost or faced difficulty effectively communicated the Obama administration’s polices, while those who succeeded enjoyed some distance from the president and his stances. At bottom, the midterm results were about rejected policies, not bad salesmanship.
The six races
In Maine’s 1st District, Democratic State Sen. Emily Cain presented herself articulately as a centrist, and yet Cain was easily defeated by the anti-Washington, anti-Obama campaign of former State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who promised lower taxes, cheaper energy and savvier government. Rural voters turned out heavily. The Bangor Daily News quoted University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer as saying Poliquin is “the first real ideologue of either party to hold this seat in quite some time.”
In New Hampshire’s 1st District, incumbent Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter was defeated handily by an outspoken Washington and Obama critic, Republican Frank Guinta. In 2010 he won the seat from Shea-Porter in the tea party wave, then lost it to her in the 2012 presidential election year. She ably presented the Obama administration’s policies since 2008 and was fervent in her support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which she voted for in 2010. “It’s a Republican year,” Shea-Porter said of her defeat.
West Virginia Democrat Joe Rahall presented himself as opposed to the Obama administration’s energy policies, especially on coal and yet was unable to fend off his opponent’s attacks.
In Massachusetts’ 6th District, longtime Republican state Rep. Richard Tisei was defeated by Democratic newcomer and Iraq War veteran Seth Moulton. Significantly, Moulton was unburdened by Washington feuds in this election cycle because he defeated the nine-term Democratic Rep. John Tierney in their primary. “It feels great, but it’s also humbling,” Moulton said of his win. Tisei, a sophisticated and accomplished Republican moderate in Massachusetts, supported social stances generally favored by Democrats, such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Moulton will be a rarity in Congress these days: a combat veteran in the Democratic House conference.
In West Virginia’s 3rd District, Democratic Rep. Joe Rahall, first elected with Jimmy Carter in 1976, was defeated soundly by Republican state Sen. Evan Jenkins in one of the most expensive campaigns of the year. Rahall presented himself as opposed to the Obama administration’s energy policies, especially on coal and yet was unable to fend off Jenkins’ attacks on Obama’s anti-coal decisions. Significantly, Jenkins switched parties to take on Rahall but did not suffer for his change. Jenkins maintained the opposition to the ACA and Obama’s energy policies that he held as a Democratic state legislator.
In Minnesota’s 7th District, veteran incumbent Democratic Rep. Colin Peterson easily fended off a challenge by Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom. Peterson is one of four Democrats remaining in Congress who voted against the ACA in 2010. In fact, he often votes with the Republican majority, and I am told he is extremely well liked by his Republican colleagues. In the district, his strength is his devotion to the gigantic Farm Bill that was passed by the Republican House this year. Westrom was unable to convince the voters to give up on a man who will likely hold the ranking chair on the House Agriculture Committee in the new Congress.
In California’s 26th District, freshman Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley is ahead of Republican state legislator Jeff Gorell, but the race remains too close to call, with absentee and provisional ballots still being counted. Significantly, there were no major policy differences between the two on health care, abortion or energy. Gorell’s emphasis of his strong business and agriculture community ties reportedly helped him close the 4- to 6-point advantage that Brownley enjoyed in the polling in a deeply blue, pro-Obama state.
In sum, the Republican candidates who succeeded in these six races — Poliquin, Guinta, Jenkins — were those who spoke against the Obama administration’s policies on health care, energy and fiscal policy. The Democrats who survived the wave each had their special strengths. Rookie Moulton was unburdened by the unpopular ACA vote and brings the eyes of a combat veteran to House debate. Peterson also avoided the ACA backlash and offers conservative Democratic hands-on agrarian policy. Brownely, a progressive Democrat, will probably narrowly survive the Republican wave with a virtual tie that stands slightly in her favor in the overwhelmingly Democratic Golden State.
To rationalize, as Obama does, that the defeated Cain, Shea-Porter and Rahall did not communicate Democratic policies persuasively is not supported by the facts. The better mousetrap that the president speaks of was judged unwanted. The rejection was not only by established Democratic congressional districts but also by the Democrats and independents in those districts who chose not to vote for what the president was selling.