Election Day in the US is a bewildering spectacle. From the upward climb of the cost of elections (NC just saw the most expensive senatorial campaign ever in history), the switch of majority in the Senate, to the legalization of marijuana in Oregon and DC, it is difficult to say exactly what voters meant to say.
What is clear is that Democrats had a bad night. Of the four senate races in the purple states that went for Obama in 2012 (VA, CO, IA, NC) Republicans won in all but VA. We now have, unequivocally, a Republican Congress. There will now be at least 52 Republican senators and 242 Republican Congressmen. Democrats failed to take down Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He has attacked labor, rolled back healthcare reform, and yet has been elected three times (including a recall election) in four years. Walker is now a person to watch. Just about the only silver lining for the Democrats is that Jeanne Shaheen of NH held on to her seat.
To some extent, this election was a referendum on Barack Obama. Democratic candidates were undeniably running away from the president, whose approval rating stood at 41 percent on the eve of the election. (Maybe some of them should have stood with him, because the perception of political malaise, endorsed even by those trying to shy away from it, can have an infectious effect on voters.) Some time tomorrow, Barack Obama will have to come into the East Room, congratulate the Republicans and hold an olive branch. He will set up a meeting with Mitch McConnell and try to learn, for the first time, how to work with a Republican-led Senate.
But this is not to say that Republicans have an easy time ahead. Republican operatives are already claiming a mandate, and warning Obama that he should not use his unilateral powers to push through immigration reform or veto a bill on the Keystone pipeline. There’s nothing stopping Obama, though. And soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have at least three Senators setting themselves up to run in 2016: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. This is not a merry band of collaborators. (Rand Paul, for instance, is for immigration reform.)
Only 46 percent of voters polled before the elections wanted a GOP Congress. But in exit polls of actual voters, 54 percent of Americans thought that government is doing too much. What this tells us is that there wasn’t a Republican swing nationwide, but there was a 6-year itch felt among some. These voters had gotten tired of incumbent Democrats and Obama, and they were the ones who turned out to make the elections a referendum on the president.
Democrats look exhausted; many have been defeated. But that also means that they are ready for a new standard bearer. The big night for Republicans may well chart an easier path for Hillary Clinton to the White House. Even amidst change, some things don’t change. American voters don’t like incumbents. Outsiders who promise to shake up Washington will come to Washington, when reality will temper rhetoric. A new majority will not a new system make.