Midterm elections results: Why Republicans crushed Democrats

The Democrats had no compelling message to counter the Republicans' anti-Obama outcry. And the Democrats' vaunted turnout operation fizzled.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday. McConnell won a sixth term in Washington, fighting off a spirited challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and soon to lead a GOP majority in the Senate.
Danny Johnston/AP
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. waves at his election watch party in North Little Rock, Ark., after defeating Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.

In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Four years after an anti-Democratic, anti-President Obama backlash swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives, a second wave has finished the job in the Senate. The Republican Party will control the upper chamber when the next Congress convenes in January. By midnight on Tuesday, the GOP had already gained the six seats needed to win the majority. Most of the close races broke the Republicans’ way.

Among the incumbent Democratic senators defeated: Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska also appeared headed for defeat. Key open seats went the GOP’s way as well. Breakout star Joni Ernst (R) won in Iowa. David Perdue (R) beat Michelle Nunn (D) in Georgia. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas beat independent insurgent Greg Orman easily.

Even Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, thought to be reasonably safe, struggled to hold on. At press time, his race against Republican Ed Gillespie, former national GOP chairman, was too close to call.

The Republican wave also reached into governors’ races – including some in deep-blue states: Charlie Baker won in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan won in Maryland, and Bruce Rauner beat Gov. Pat Quinn (D) in Illinois. Even in Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) – chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association – was held under 50 percent by Republican Scott Milne, though will probably hold onto his seat. In Democratic-leaning Maine, tea party-backed Gov. Paul LePage (R) won a tight reelection race.

Republicans also appeared headed toward a net gain of at least 10 seats in the House. The next Congress will have its largest GOP majority in the lower chamber since the 1940s.

So much for the vaunted Democratic turnout operation. What went wrong there? Democrats failed to inspire key demographic groups that typically turn out in lower numbers for midterms – minorities, single women, and young voters. The party had no message strong enough to overcome the Republicans’ anti-Obama, anti-Democratic narrative, analysts say.

But Republicans reject the argument that the election was just a repudiation of Mr. Obama and his party: It also handed the GOP an assignment, and it must perform – fast.   

“Republicans have been given a mandate to govern with an emphasis on spurring the economy,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Once the new Congress is seated in January, the onus will be on Republicans to deliver.”

They don’t have much time to show results. In a mirror image of 2014, the Republicans in 2016 will be defending more Senate seats than the Democrats – including GOP-held seats in Democratic-leaning and battleground states. And with a hotly contested battle for the presidency, the larger electorate will bring out more typically Democratic voters than showed up for the 2014 midterms. Most urgently, the Republicans will need to work hard to attract minorities, especially Latinos, a fast-growing segment of the voting population.

Amid the carnage, Democrats had a few bright spots Tuesday night: Gwen Graham, daughter of former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham, took out incumbent Rep. Steve Southerland (R) of Florida. Businessman Tom Wolf (D) of Pennsylvania defeated incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett (R), as expected. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire held on against former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. 

Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) of Connecticut appeared headed to victory in a hard-fought race. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado was ahead at press time in another tight race.

In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell was trailing independent candidate Bill Walker in another close race. But for the most part, the 2014 midterms were a rout for Republicans. To quote Obama after the 2010 midterms, it was another “shellacking.”

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