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A good year for GOP, not so much for Dems: top 8 political stories of 2014

From the drubbing the Democrats took in the midterm elections to President Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba, here's a look back at 2014's biggest political stories.

Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters at a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, June 22.

Politics plays a part – sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden – in most aspects of national life, so the task of picking the top political stories of 2014 is somewhat arbitrary. But here is one list, recapping the drubbing that Democrats took in the midterm elections, as well as the controversial policy moves by President Obama afterward, all chronicled by the Monitor’s staff.

Republicans easily win back the Senate: In the 2014 races for the Senate, Republicans picked up nine seats and lost none, ending up with 54 seats. That gave Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky the role he sought for years: majority leader. A key factor in the multiple victories was the GOP’s success in avoiding mistakes made in two previous election cycles, when party incumbents were defeated in primaries by more conservative candidates who proved unelectable in November.  

Republicans deepen their hold on the House: The GOP added to its control of the House, where the party posted a net gain of 13 seats to give Speaker John Boehner a 247-to-188 edge over Democrats, the largest GOP majority since the 1940s. That margin could strengthen Speaker Boehner’s hand in dealing with members of his caucus who find him insufficiently conservative.

House majority leader loses intraparty fight: The Republican Party’s increased congressional dominance did not come without some political bloodshed. House majority leader Eric Cantor – the second ranking Republican in the chamber – posted the most shocking defeat of the 2014 primary season, losing to David Brat, a little-known economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. The loss was variously attributed to what voters viewed as insufficient opposition to immigration reform and to Representative Cantor’s emphasis on national politics as opposed to his district.

In the leadership shuffle after Cantor’s resignation, Kevin McCarthy (R) of California became majority leader and Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana was elected party whip, the third ranking spot. That election was seen as a victory for tea party backers who wanted what they viewed as a strong conservative in the House leadership.

At year’s end, Representative Scalise was embroiled in controversy surrounding a speech he gave in 2002, while a member of the Louisiana legislature, to a white supremacist group.

Gubernatorial races: The GOP increased its hold on governor's mansions, ending up with a gain of two governorships to give the party control of 31. But that gain understates the electoral power the GOP showed, fending off major challenges to at-risk Republicans in Maine, Florida, and Wisconsin. Republicans also surprised Democrats by picking up governorships in traditionally Democratic Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts. One consequence of these gains is a stronger bench of potential presidential candidates going into the 2016 election.

Mr. Obama strikes climate deal with China: Obama once famously told Republican leaders that “elections have consequences.” But rather than seeing the 2014 election results as a rebuke, he appeared newly energized, announcing a new climate deal with China on Nov. 11, exactly one week after the election. He did so while in Beijing for an economic summit, announcing an agreement to speed action on curbing gases blamed for global warming. The move was seen as an effort by Obama to boost his environmental legacy.

The United States set a new goal to reduce by 2025 the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the air by between 26 and 28 percent, while China agreed to a self-imposed deadline of 2030 for when its emissions will top out. The legislation needed to implement the US goal will face strong Republican opposition. "This unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs," said incoming Senate majority leader McConnell.

Obama takes executive action on immigration: As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised he would enact immigration reform during his first year in office. That did not happen as Obama faced stiff congressional resistance. So on Nov. 20 of this year, the president announced a series of actions designed to protect some 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, including many parents of US citizens who have lived in the US for at least five years.

Republicans called it an illegal overreach of presidential authority, and 24 states have filed a lawsuit asserting Obama’s action was illegal. The president’s move poses a challenge for Republicans on how to respond in a way that does not anger the party’s conservative base or alienate Latino voters, who will be a crucial voting block in the 2016 elections.

Obama calls for a new policy toward Cuba: In his third major postelection policy move, Obama called on Dec. 17 for the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the ending of the 54-year trade embargo with the island nation, which is separated from the US by just 90 miles of water. The president said the embargo was “an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests.”

His critics from both parties argued that the deal struck with Cuban President Raúl Castro was one-sided. The policy shift, said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, was based on “the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people.” 

Gay marriage becomes legal in more states: More than 64 percent of the US population lives in a state currently issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples statewide, according to the Freedom to Marry advocacy group. The number of states permitting gay marriage has risen rapidly since the June 2013 decision by the US Supreme Court striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to legally married gay couples.

In October, the Supreme Court turned away several gay marriage cases, setting off a chain reaction of rulings that made gay marriage legal in 35 states. Prior to the court's decision not to take up those cases, same-sex marriage had been legal in 19 states, plus the District of Columbia.

A ban on gay marriage in Florida is slated to be lifted Jan. 6, which would make that state the 36th to recognize such marriages. The Florida Attorney General’s Office is arguing that the ruling dropping the ban applies to only one county.

Material from the Associated Press was used in compiling this article.

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