2014 Election Postmortem: The Merely Bad, The Ugly, And The Cataclysmic
In the last few election cycles, the polls have been too bearish for Democrats to some degree or another, so I sort of bought into the idea that 2014 might be another example of that pattern. But polls certainly aren't always too bearish on the Democratic side, with 2002 being the most recent example of a midterm when Republicans fared much better than predicted. And in retrospect, 2014 was another year where Democratic underperformance should have been easier to predict. Never in my adult life were the midterm elections ignored by the media to the extent that they were this year, and that should have foreshadowed a suppressed turnout pattern that skewed older and whiter, with the "coalition of the ascendant" staying home playing video games asking "what election?" And so it went, apparently with late-deciding voters breaking almost unanimously towards Republicans in state after state and resulting in an election night disaster for Dems that made November 2, 2010, look like the good old day by comparison.
I used to try to ram through my election postmortems the day after the election, but it was just too oppressive and distracted me from late-breaking data collection. Furthermore, with the expansion of provisional ballots and late-counted votes in more and more states that delay results, it makes sense to wait a couple of weeks after the election to give my state-by-state analysis. There are still a couple of House races without official calls yet, but we're 99% in the know how everything went. So here goes....
Alabama--If one was to make a list of red states where Democrats have the most impossible path to victory in the year 2014, Alabama would be at or near the top of the list. It's so bad that Republican Senator Jeff Sessions ran unopposed for his fourth term, the only Senator in 2014 with that distinction. The Governor's race was only slightly less of a rout with Democrat-turned-Republican-turned Democrat-again Parker Griffith, who briefly represented a northern Alabama Congressional district, was predictably wiped out challenging Republican incumbent Robert Bentley. Most telling was that Griffith only won Birmingham and the heavily African-American stretch of counties running through central Alabama, failing to capture any of the ancestrally Democratic Yellow Dog counties of northern Alabama that only six years ago elected him to Congress. Like everywhere else in the South with a white majority, northern Alabama appears to have realigned unequivocally to Republicans.
Alaska--The marquee Senate race in Alaska was one of the cycle's most unpredictable as the state is very hard to poll and the polling data available showed everything from a double-digit margin for incumbent Democrat Mark Begich to a double-digit margin for Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. The way the night was going it was hard to believe when the Alaska polls closed at midnight that Begich was gonna pull it out and he didn't, although with so many late ballots to count in the state from remote rural precincts and crab fishermen at sea, the race remained in suspense for a week after the election. Begich was behind by 8,000 votes, which seemed narrowly within the window of the possible for him to catch up with the remaining ballots. But with most ballots counted he's only netted around 1,000 votes and has since conceded to Sullivan, behind by about two points in a race that did end up being reasonably close despite being one of the heaviest lifts for Democrats to hold. Elsewhere on the ballot, the incumbent Republican Governor was felled by an independent named Bill Walker for whom the Democratic challenger ceded. Walker received the endorsement of Sarah Palin over her own former Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell. No telling if that helped Walker but it was certainly an eye-opener and capstoned a far more exciting election cycle than is typical in Alaska.
Arizona--There was no Senate race in Arizona this year but an open Governor seat vacated by Republican Jan Brewer. Republican Doug Ducey was widely considered to have the edge and prevailed by double-digits, a few points better than expected (the story of the night for the GOP). But the Democrats had a split decision in the battleground House races this year. The Dems have a nominally favorable district map in Arizona this decade and went into the election holding all three tenuous districts. The good news is Democrat Kirsten Synema prevailed handily in her Tempe-based district. The better news is that Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick won by a surprising six-point margin in her more conservative northern Arizona district despite being heavily targeted and considered an underdog towards the end. But the bad news is that Ron Barber, who barely eked out a win against Republican challenger Martha McSally in his suburban Tucson district in 2012, appears likely to have lost to McSally by a microscopic 171-vote margin in their 2014 rematch. There's a recount forthcoming but I'm operating under the assumption that Barber was defeated in what currently stands as the closest House election in the country.
Arkansas--You gotta give Arkansas Democrats credit for going down with a fight. Sensing that their state was rapidly realigning red, they fielded their strongest slate of candidates possible for the Senate and gubernatorial races along with two open House seats held both held by Democrats as recently as 2010. But they all came up short, often disastrously, as the Natural State appears to have become as inhospitable to Democrats as neighboring Oklahoma and Tennessee. I predicted months ago that Republican Tom Cotton would consolidate support in his race against incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor, but his 17-point pounding of Pryor exceeded even my wildest imaginations as Cotton held Pryor to little more than the Obama coalition of Little Rock and the Delta counties. The Governor's race, which was considered over a month ago, was somewhat less of a blowout with former Democratic Congressman Mike Ross losing by "only" 11 points and hanging on to some of the Yellow Dog Democrat counties in southern Arkansas that he used to represent in Congress, but still falling considerably short of taking down Republican Asa Hutchinson, also a former Congressman from the northwestern part of the state. The Democrat (Patrick Hays) got within three points in the Little Rock-based 2nd district but still lost as did Clinton's former FEMA Director James Lee Witt who lost by double digits running for Cotton's abandoned House seat. The Republicans, who seized control of the Arkansas Legislature in 2012, greatly expanded their majority to more than 60% of seats in both the House and Senate, effectively wiping out the Democratic bench and assuring the GOP's takeover of Arkansas is likely to be permanent. Bill Clinton tried everything he could to help these Democrats but Clinton couldn't stop this train or even slow it down. And so we have another Southern state written off for the foreseeable future, forfeited to far-right radicals.
California--A less sorrowful narrative came in the state of California where Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who had a much more successful first term than I anticipated in 2010 given the massive mess he inherited, was re-elected in a nearly 20-point landslide over Republican challenger Neil Kashkari. But with no Senate race on the ballot and Brown's victory a sure thing, there was concern that low turnout could wash away a significant number of Democrats in the House whose heavily Hispanic district are vulnerable when turnout is low. And sure enough, the election night returns look dire as they frequently do with no fewer than eight races too close to call, some with the Democrat narrowly ahead but most with the Democrat narrowly behind. One of the races that wasn't close, interestingly, was Raul Ruiz, a freshman in a tenuous Riverside County district who won decisively. But other Democrats ranging from Lois Capps in Santa Barbara to Jim Costa in Fresno to Scott Peters in suburban San Diego to Ami Bera in suburban Sacramento, Democratic incumbents were on the rocks in every corner of the state. But the races were close enough that I wasn't all that concerned, knowing the way the California vote count goes and how the late-counted ballots are almost always very heavily Democratic. And sure enough, one by one, the Democrats took the lead in all of these races and while two have not yet been officially called, it seems almost certain that the Democrats will win all of their vulnerable seats and even pick up the LA County-based 31st district, a 57% Obama district that Republican Gary Miller held on a technicality in 2012 before announcing his retirement this year. So the streak of Democratic expansion in California continues as it's now been more than 20 years since a Democrat has lost a seat in the state's 50-plus House delegation.
Colorado--There were warning signs going back to last year that Democrats might be facing a tough cycle in Colorado this year and those signs grew more ominous as the election neared. Democrats' hopes of knocking off 6th District Republican Congressman Mike Coffman in suburban Denver fell off the grid of competitive races very early and the polls began turning against incumbent Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall after Labor Day. Republican Congressman Cory Gardner proved to be a fantastic candidate despite being well to the right of his state's median, and got an assist from Udall's terrible single-issue campaign centered around abortion and birth control that came across as wildly out of touch. The polls began showing Udall slipping further and further behind but Democrats held out hope that the state's new vote-by-mail operation could goose turnout and save Udall. It didn't happen, but honestly, it came closer than I expected as Colorado was one of the few states where Democrats outperformed the polls. Udall lost by about two points to Gardner but Governor Hickenlooper prevailed by three points. It would be more convenient from my perspective if those results had flipped, but the fact that Democrats held up better than expected in this key battleground state in such a bad environment gives me hope that the state continues to trend left and Democrats will be favored in the 2016 Presidential election and in holding Michael Bennet's Senate seat.
Connecticut--Democratic Governor Dan Malloy won his first term by a whisker in 2010 and has been less than popular in the four years since. Tom Foley, Malloy's 2010 challenger, decided to give it another go but the outcome was the same, although this time Malloy won by a more decisive three-point margin, even though it took until Wednesday morning to declare a winner as heavily Democratic Bridgeport almost always comes in last. Beyond the Governor's race, Connecticut re-elected all five members of its all-Democratic Congressional delegation. The red tide missed Connecticut entirely.
Delaware--There were no high-profile contests in Delaware this year as Democratic incumbent Chris Coons, who sneaked into his first term running against Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell", easily scored a second term with a margin in the mid-teens. One has to suspect he would have won more decisively with stronger turnout but there were few burning reasons for Delaware voters to head to the polls on November 4.
Florida--I had a bad feeling that despite Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist's lead in most polls heading into election day that we'd see another lethargic turnout that allowed Republican Rick Scott to worm his way into a second term. Looking at the county map, one would think Crist did enough to win, scoring Obama-sized numbers in most of the state's Democratic strongholds, but there was one exception....heavily Puerto Rican Orlando, where Crist's margins were soft compared to Obama's and was probably the difference allowing Scott his one-point victory. It was the latest example of how fragile and unreliable the Democrats' new coalition is. The same fragile coalition took a Democratic seat away from Joe Garcia in the southern Miami suburbs, but Florida defied the odds and was also the home to one of only three seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Senator Bob Graham, picked up a swing-ish Tallahassee-centered district held by two-term Republican Steve Southerland. Given the headwinds she was facing in a district generally trending away from Democrats, Graham's victory was impressive.
Georgia--For all the promise that Georgia held for Democrats leading up to the election, it's hard to overstate how big of a disaster it was. Gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter--the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter--and Senate candidate Michelle Nunn--the daughter of the iconic former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn--were touted as the kind of Democrats who could hold the Obama coalition of nonwhite Georgians as well as get back some of the legacy Democrats who voted for Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn in the past. While I had a hard time believing either would get to the 50% threshold they needed to win, I bought the premise myself that picking up a small percent of Demosaurs was doable. But then comes election night and a county map that shows both Nunn and Carter scored exactly zero county wins in the majority white rural counties where they were supposed to exceed the baseline. Aside from a single metro Atlanta county with fast changing demographics, neither won a single county that Obama lost in 2012 and both lost by an identical eight-point margin as Obama. And this was up against an unpopular incumbent Republican Governor and a Senate candidate who has repeatedly sung the virtues of outsourcing American jobs in his business career. Adding further insult to injury, the last white Democrat in the Deep South--John Barrow--was not considered particularly vulnerable this year in his Republican-leaning East Georgia district, but he lost by an eyebrow-raising 10-point margin. While demographic trendlines still suggest a more competitive Georgia is coming, the results of November 4, 2014, was a reality check that it's gonna take longer than Democrats had hoped.
Hawaii--The Aloha State was another place where the Republican wave missed. Brian Schatz, the interim Senator appointed to fill the seat of the late Dan Inouye, was elected by a better than 2-to-1 margin for the final two years of Inouye's term. Democrat David Ige, who crushed the incumbent Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie in the primary, went on to win the gubernatorial election by double digits despite a third-party agitator. And in the House, an open seat that could have been trouble because of the unique appeal of former Republican Congressman Charles Djou, narrowly stayed in Democratic hands.
Idaho--There was no question Republican Senator Jim Risch would win a second term and he pulled that off comfortably, but there was some speculation that Republican Governor Butch Otter, running for his third term, might face and upset for Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff. This is Idaho though so I always figured voters would defer to the Republican in the end and that's what happened as Otter prevailed by a 13-point margin. Berkuloff did pull off a couple of interesting county victories in Ada County (Boise) and Bannock County (Pocatello) but still fell far short of the distant goal of making Idaho competitive.
Illinois--Back in 2010, Illinois' Democratic Governor Pat Quinn was expected by just about everybody to lose his re-election bid, but pulled out a narrow victory on the basis of his huge Chicago margin. This year the opposite happened as Quinn pulled ahead in most polls after Labor Day over shady Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, yet significantly underperformed on election night and lost by a decisive five points. This was only the tip of the iceberg in regards to sliding Democratic fortunes in Illinois as Senator Dick Durbin, who coasted to sweeping 2-1 victories in his past two contests, won by only 10 points this year and ended up with a county map less blue than John Kerry's 2004 Presidential map in the state. Democrats also lost two House seats, including the ancestrally Republican 10th district in the northern suburbs of Chicago that has otherwise trended significantly blue in recent cycles but re-elected former Republican Congressman Bob Dold over incumbent Democrat Brad Schneider this year. Uglier, however, was the double-digit defeat of freshman Democrat Bill Enyart in the southern Illinois-based 12th district. The southern two-thirds of the state appears to be realigning towards Republicans and no place more than the St. Louis suburbs and exurbs, particularly in Madison County. Enyart had a personal profile that fit the district but still lost to a raving, screaming right-wing lunatic who bragged about how he shot a dog with a gun. Interestingly, through all this, Democrats held their solid majorities in both Houses of the Illinois Legislature but it still seems likely this trendline of Chicago vs. the rest of the state will continue in Illinois, and that portends bad things for Democrats.
Indiana--Few states had less going on this election than Indiana without any Governor or Senate seat on the ballot. Fortunately for Democrats, they didn't have anything at risk in the House as their only two remaining seats are safely Democratic urban districts, but apparently the Republicans consolidated further gains to their existing supermajority in the Indiana Legislature. Very hard to believe that this state went for Obama just six short years ago amidst its two-year flirtation with Democrats.
Iowa--My adopted home state was a killing field for Democrats this year but it was easy to see coming. Despite being light years to the right of her center-left state, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst parlayed a glossy personal profile of herself in her ads into a winning campaign with the help of a few stumbles by her Democratic challenger Bruce Braley and turned her underdog effort to claim long-time Democratic Senator Tom Harkin's seat into an eight-point blowout. Republican Governor Terry Branstad was re-elected for his record-breaking sixth term by an even bigger landslide while the swing House district vacated by Republican Tom Latham remained handily in GOP hands with a surprisingly large double-digit victory by David Young, and even Bruce Braley's old House seat in northeastern Iowa, the most Democratic of the state's four districts, was captured by Republican Rod Blum, leaving only one remaining Democrat in Iowa's Congressional delegation. Yet even with all of this carnage, Iowa Democrats managed to maintain their tenuous 26-24 grasp on the Iowa Senate. How they pulled that off with the bloodbath upballot is a mystery for the ages.
Kansas--Of all of the red states that fooled with Democrats' heads this cycle, no place was it crueler than Kansas where every indication suggested an anti-Republican wave was coming based on the disastrous tax cut plan enact by Governor Sam Brownback and his state's Republican legislature that has put them billions in debt and harmed the state's credit rating. I always suspected that geriatric Republican Senator Pat Roberts would overcome the challenge from Indepedent Greg Orman despite getting caught flat-footed in the early autumn and finding himself behind when the Democrat in the race dropped out and yielded to Orman. But Orman peaked to soon and was deluged by Roberts' big-money advertising blitz. Still, polls showed a close race with the advantage to Orman right up until the weekend before the election, so imagine everybody's surprise when Roberts crushed Orman by 11 points. Was it a massive polling fail or did Republican voters just decide to come home to Roberts en masse? I'm guessing more the latter than the former. Three Republican House members that were seen as being marginally vulnerable all won in 20+ point landslides and even Governor Brownback, the guy who was held most responsible for the GOP's supposed sinking fortunes in Kansas this year and who was behind significantly in every poll weeks before election day, ended up winning by four points. Moral of the story: anytime it appears from afar that Kansans just might be about to make a sensible choice in the voting booth, don't believe it. They'll always default to insanity.
Kentucky--The first indication that November 4, 2014, was gonna be a bad night for Democrats came before 6 p.m. central time as the early results started pouring in from Kentucky, the first state in the nation whose polls close. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes was expected to lose--and lose decisively based on final weekend polling--but if she had any chance at an upset she needed to hang onto some legacy support from East Kentucky coal counties that for decades were the Democrats' base in Kentucky but have shifted dramatically to Republicans during the Obama era. But Grimes was only performing a tick better than Obama in those counties, foreshadowing a larger-than-expected defeat that ended up being 15 points, worse than what Jack Conway lost to Rand Paul in 2010. Grimes only won 10 counties, doing zero business in western Kentucky, another region full of conservative legacy Dems that have been trending Republican, despite her localized pitch to the Paducah area over a McConnell failing there. The magnitude of Grimes' defeat bode very poor things for Election Night 2014 as the polls continued to close in additional states, and for the Democrats' ability to be a functional party in Appalachia and the South moving forward. Democrats held on to the Kentucky State House, making it one of the only legislative chambers they're still holding in the South, but that's the closest thing the Dems could muster to a good outcome from not only Kentucky, but the entire region, last month.
Louisiana--The good news in Louisiana this year is that Democrat Mary Landrieu didn't lose her Senate race on November 4th like so many other vulnerable Dems. The bad news is she's gonna lose it on December 6th in the runoff being held since a crowded Republican field in Louisiana's infamous jungle primary prevented anybody from getting the 50% needed to win outright. With that said, Landrieu only managed 42% of the vote on election night, barely topping her primary challenger, Republican Bill Cassidy, who got 41%, and who she now faces on December 6. Scoring only 18% of the white vote on November 4, she has virtually zero chance of prevailing in the runoff as she needs the 30+% number of white voters she pulled off in her previous races to win as the state has simply become too untenable for her or any Democrat to win like so many other Southern states. She's been triaged by the national Democratic Party who view her race as hopeless, meaning she has virtually no presence on the Louisiana airwaves two weeks before the election and will probably lose by more than 20 points. It's a very sad end to a political Cinderalla story that began 18 years ago. She's done a lot for her constituents during those 18 years but will be rewarded with a landslide defeat simply because of the (D) next to her name.
Maine--Yet another state with shockingly awful surprises in store for Democrats on election night, Maine re-elected long-time "moderate" Republican Senator Susan Collins in a landslide as predicted but saved its sinister surprises for elsewhere on the ballot. In the Governor's race, it was long assumed that Tea Party Republican Paul Le Page, who slid into office in 2010 with a 37% plurality in a three-way race, had a ceiling of 40% and so long as Independent Eliot Cutler's numbers declined below 20% this year, should be easy picking's for Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud. And Cutler's numbers cooperatively declined as the cycle went on, but something else strange occurred in tandem....Le Page's favorability and poll numbers kept rising beyond their perceived ceiling into the mid-40s. And then Le Page got blessed with the timing of being able to grandstand over Kaci Hickox's Ebola quarantine the weekend before election and that may have been enough to account for Le Page's impressive 48% showing and four-point victory. Pouring salt in the wound, Democrat Michaud's northern Maine House seat flipped to the Republicans rather decisively (five points) as well. And this was from the state with the highest turnout in the nation, meaning it's harder to blame it on lethargic voters the way it is elsewhere in the country. Very hard to get into the mind of voters in some of these states and their schizophrenic tendencies cycle to cycle.
Maryland--Another big, unpleasant surprise on election night came in the deep blue state of Maryland where there had been some indication that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown was slipping in the lead-up to election day, but most, including myself, just assumed that black turnout would save Brown and that it was no longer feasible for a Republican to win a statewide election in Maryland anymore. But Republican Larry Hogan proved it was, pulling off a decisive five-point victory that may take the wind out of the sail of the Presidential ambitions of Hogan's predecessor, two-term Democrat Martin O'Malley. Hogan's victory was so thorough that Democrats nearly lost a House seat designed especially for them in the ensuing shitstorm, with freshman Democrat John Delaney prevailing by only a point against very conservative Republican challenger Dan Bongino in a Montgomery County-centered district.
Massachusetts--Another blue state, another Democratic disaster at the top of the ticket, although this was more predictable heading into election day as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, who famously blew a Senate election against Scott Brown in 2010, extended her losing streak in one of the nation's bluest states into 2014 with a one-point defeat against Republican Charlie Baker. Massachusetts has a history of electing "moderate" Republican Governors as a check against the state's Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, but it was still bad for the party narrative on such a bad night to be losing in Massachusetts. On the bright side, Democratic Senator Ed Markey won a landslide re-election victory, his first full-term, while Democrats held on to two nominally competitive House races, including an open seat in the state's northeast corner won by Iraq war hero Seth Moulton, continuing the all-Democratic Congressional delegation that Massachusetts has maintained since 1996.
Michigan--The one bit of good news Democrats got in Senate races on election night was the double-digit victory by Congressman Gary Peters in the open seat vacated by long-time Democratic Senator Carl Levin which was thought to be competitive early in the cycle. But Republican challenger Terri Lynn Land proved to be such an incompetent candidate that Peters pulled away early and never looked back, winning by 14 points and becoming the only new Democratic Senator elected in 2014. Everything else went badly in Michigan, however, as Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who was vulnerable in pre-election polls, prevailed by four points over his strong challenge by Democrat Mark Schauer. And Democrats' efforts to make inroads in the Legislature and a few nominally vulnerable GOP-held U.S. House seats also proved unsuccessful. Still, the fact that Michigan produced some good news to go along with the bad put it in rare company in 2014.
Minnesota--I already covered the Minnesota races in a previous blog post but a quick summary for those who didn't read it was that the GOP wave bypassed Minnesota with decisive victories for incumbent Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken. Northern Minnesota Congressional Democrats Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan both faced strong Republican challengers yet both emerged victorious. The Republicans did recapture the Minnesota state House, however, and the GOP has been spectacular in its ability to spin a huge election night victory for themselves in Minnesota media, pretending as if the state House was the only entity that counted on election night and that they didn't get their asses kicked everywhere else on the Minnesota ballot.
Mississippi--Turnout dropped more in Mississippi than any other state compared to 2012 and it shouldn't come as a surprise. The only statewide race was the Senate race where a lot of bridges were burned during the scorched-earth Republican primary where veteran GOP Senator Thad Cochran survived against hard-right Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel by appealing to black voters. This scenario prompted a lot of conservative whites to stay home while paralyzing Democratic candidate Travis Childers who had hoped to run against McDaniel but instead found himself up against Cochran who always wins a significant share of the black vote in MS, thus denying Childers any conceivably path to victory. Cochran won by about 20 points, but Childers actually got 16% of the white vote, about halfway between the 10% Obama got and the 23% he needed to win the race with a better turnout model. Given Childers' personal and political connection to heavily white and rural northeastern Mississippi, it's worth pondering whether he may have been able to get to that goal had he faced McDaniel. My guess is that if the general election race had been fully litigated, Mississippi whites would have stuck with the GOP rather than risk the prospect of Democrats holding the Senate, a case that would-be candidate McDaniel would have made over and over, but it's still an interesting hypothetical.
Missouri--There were no major races on the ballot in Missouri this year, which undoubtedly spared Democrats from another humiliation given the state's trendline and the likelihood of further racial polarization based on the current turmoil in Ferguson. Only the Congressional races were up this year and the two remaining Democrats in urban Kansas City and St. Louis districts prevailed while Republicans dominated everywhere else, the same scenario as is the case with the Republican supermajorities in the state legislature.
Montana--Democrats were busy getting a major black eye in Montana long before the first ballot was cast in 2014, having concocted a clever scheme to replace retiring Democratic Senator Max Baucus early and appoint his successor, Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, to give him quasi-incumbency heading into 2014. It was sort of working too, as Walsh was trailing in the polls over the summer but creeping up on GOP Congressman Steve Daines running for the seat. But then all hell broke loose with the revelation that Walsh plagiarized his Army college thesis and then exacerbated the damage by blaming his plagiarism on "post-traumatic stress disorder". He ultimately had to resign his seat, leaving Democrats scrambling to find a candidate with three months before the election. The only candidate stepping up to the plate was a left-wing young legislator from Butte named Amanda Curtis with a nose ring who made bombastic, potty-mouthed videos on You Tube talking about how she wanted to punch Republicans in the face. Montana rose to #1 on the list of certain Republican Senate seat takeovers and the predicted Daines victory materialized, although interestingly, Curtis' 18-point defeat was only one point larger than the defeat of Mark Pryor in Arkansas who was suspected to be in a margin-of-error race right up until the weekend before the election. And as expected, Daines' abandoned House seat was also retained by Republicans.
Nebraska--Things are so bad for Democrats in Nebraska these days that they're running Some Dude nobodies even in open seats. Such was the case this year when GOP Senator Mike Johanns retired after a single term and no prominent Democrat stepped up to challenge a flurry of Republicans. Right-wing youngster Ben Sasse skated to victory, sweeping all 93 Nebraska counties in a two-to-one landslide. Democrats fared slightly better in the open gubernatorial race expected to be nominally competitive....Dem Chuck Hassebrook only lost to Republican Pete Ricketts by 19 points! But there was one bit of good news for Democrats in the state. One of three House seats that Democrats picked up was the Omaha-area 2nd district of Nebraska where the always underperforming Republican Congressman Lee Terry was felled by Democrat Brad Ashford. The district has been trending a little bit towards Democrats in the last several years, but I still feel as though Ashford will likely be a one-termer.
Nevada--I sounded the alarm bells late summer that Nevada, being an "orphan state" this year without any Senate race and a noncompetitive gubernatorial race where Republican incumbent Brian Sandoval was cruising to a landslide re-election, could see a really depressed Democratic turnout, particularly since Nevada is a big-time machine state relying on the SEIU machinery to motivate its base voters. And sure enough, Las Vegas political reporter and Nevada politics expert Jon Ralston sounded the alarm bells after the first couple of days of early voting, reporting that turnout by registered Democrats was disastrously low. The guy I worried about most was Congressman Steven Horsford, a freshman from a newly crafted majority-minority district centered around Las Vegas' north side, and sure enough, the GOP funneled a million dollars into the campaign of Horsford's Some Dude opponent at the last minute. The warning signs of the early vote materialized on election night with Democrats losing the state Senate and with Horsford losing his seat. It will almost assuredly be a two-year rental as this seat is unwinnable for a Republican with Presidential year turnout, but Nevada was Exhibit A of the "coalition of the ascendant's" limitations this cycle. As some smug Republican operatives have sagely pointed out in the recent past, "political realignments don't take midterms off".
New Hampshire--For most of the 2014 cycle, few took seriously former Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown's carpetbagging challenge to incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen given her high approval ratings, but Brown undeniably made a race of it in the home stretch. Brown was particularly popular in southeastern New Hampshire which is served by the Boston media market and has a lot of conservative Massachusetts expatriates who served as his base while the state's rural areas held strong for Shaheen. In the end, Shaheen prevailed by a decisive four points, making it the only state in the 10-seat Senate battleground where the Democrats won. Elsewhere on the ballot, incumbent Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan was re-elected while it was a split decision in the state's two House races. Democratic incumbent Ann Kuster held on in the more Democratic western New Hampshire district while Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in eastern New Hampshire lost--again--to Republican Frank Guinta who beat her in 2010 before she came back to beat him in 2012. Volatile New Hampshire mostly resisted the wave this year.
New Jersey--It was a sleepy year in Jersey. Democratic incumbent Cory Booker was re-elected to his Senate seat by 14 points while all the House races went as predicted. The open seat in South Jersey vacated by Republican Jon Runyan was considered nominally competitive but the GOP nominee prevailed by 10 points to hold the seat.
New Mexico--Everything went according to script in the Land of Enchantment as well with GOP Governor Susanna Martinez comfortably winning re-election (and strengthening her position as a future player on a national Republican ticket) while Democratic Senator Tom Udall was re-elected to his seat by a 10-point margin. Needless to say, one Udall cousin had a much better night than the other on November 4th. The state is trending towards solid blue state status without question but a Hispanic Republican on the ticket--be it Martinez herself or Sandoval or Rubio--could put it back in play.
New York--For as little as Andrew Cuomo has done for the Democratic Party, it might have been better if Republican Carl Palladino had won the 2010 gubernatorial election in New York. At the very least, it's unfortunate that Zephyr Teachout didn't beat Cuomo in the Democratic primary. Cuomo's lucky he governs New York and was able to cruise to a double-digit re-election victory despite his corrupt and open hostility towards progressives in his party and Democratic governing prospects in the state. But liberal distaste for Cuomo still cost Democrats a lot on November 4 as abysmal turnout hurt Democrats downticket, with three House seats flipping to the GOP. The retirement of Democratic Congressman Bill Owens in NY-21 in far northern New York gave rise to a certain seat loss, especially with the strong candidacy of youthful Republican Elise Stefanik who picked up the seat in a landslide. The district is trending Democrat so it's possible we'll get the seat back in a better climate, but I suspect it'll take a wave for the ancestrally Republican region to vote out Stefanik. Elsewhere, political gravity finally caught up to Democrat Tim Bishop after more than a decade in office in his wealthy Long Island district in the Hamptons, and his seat flipped Republican. The biggest stunner was the 20-point defeat of Democrat Dan Maffei--already defeated once in 2010 before reclaiming his seat in 2012--in a heavily Democratic Syracuse-area seat. Maffei needs to get out of politics because he doesn't seem to be very good at it considering his vast underperformance cycle after cycle. But the biggest scare came in the Rochester-based NY-25 where long-time Democrat Louise Slaughter who's served for decades hung on by only about 700 votes in a seat that was on nobody's radar as vulnerable. What happened in New York is a reminder of the vulnerabilities in one-party states where the outcomes of upticket races are preordained, particularly when the candidate at the top of the ticket is loathed by the base, suppressing turnout and making incumbents in more marginal districts vulnerable. This seems likely to be a recurring problem in subsequent midterms.
North Carolina--My take on the North Carolina Senate race was that Democrat Kay Hagan's path to victory was to take a bunch of rural counties in ancestrally Democratic western North Carolina (Heath Shuler country) and southeastern North Carolina (Mike McIntyre country) that she won in 2008 but which Obama never won, as she'd need to compensate for an inevitable decline in turnout among the party base of African-Americans and college towns. If she merely conquered the Obama coalition that fell two points short of winning the state for Obama in 2012, she wasn't gonna win. The polls indicated she had carved out a narrow advantage against weak Republican challenger Thom Tillis and had sustained it throughout the campaign, but come November 4, Hagan won only the Obama coalition and nothing else, losing by the same two-point margin that Obama did. Two counties I held up as bellwethers were Swain County in the west and Columbus County in the southeast, bastions of ancestral Democratic tradition. A moderate Democrat like Hagan just had to beat a shlub like Tillis in places like these to prevail. They both went red. At least for now, Democrats shouldn't panic about this realignment of rural North Carolina to Republicans because their base vote is in the regions of the state growing fastest, but with the state now so firmly entrenched in wall-to-wall Tea Party governance, will the state continue to appeal to progressives and compel them to move there? It's a frightening concern for Democrats. The only solace for Dems is that the state's been redistricted so brutally in the GOP's favor, they didn't lose much more this year, but they did still lose one House seat that they knew they'd lose two years ago. The aforementioned conservative Democrat Mike McIntyre overcame a brutal new district map to barely win in 2012 but when he announced his retirement heading into this cycle, it was a very safe bet that it would flip to the GOP as it did.
North Dakota--There was nothing of significance on the ballot in North Dakota this year. There was some speculation that Democrat George Sinner could upset freshman Republican Kevin Cramer in the state's at-large House seat, but it was always a massive longshot and Cramer won by 18 points. Expect this state to glow an even brighter shade of red in the years moving forward with the oil industry explosion fueling its growth, a phenomenon that underscores how incredible Heidi Heitkamp's victory was there in 2012.
Ohio--One of the most spectacular candidate fails this year was Democrat Ed FitzGerald, the challenger groomed to face off against incumbent GOP Governor John Kasich this year. Poor fund-raising, enough to doom FitzGerald by itself, nonetheless ended up being the least of his worries as it was later revealed he was driving illegally without a license for 10 years and was seen in a parking lot at 4 a.m. making out with a woman who was not his wife. The race quickly went from a battleground to a safe Kasich win, and in a disastrously low-turnout affair, Kasich ended up winning by 31 points, positioning himself well for a Presidential bid in 2016. There was no Senate race in Ohio and the House races are gerrymandered to the point of always being uncompetitive, but Democrats still took it on the chin in constitutional office races, continuing to leave the party with a bench of nobody in the nation's most prominent swing state. Not good!
Oklahoma--The state that has become the most impenetrable Republican fortress during the Obama years delivered big-time for the GOP again this year. There were two Senate races on the ballot, with veteran Republican incumbent Jim Inhofe running for re-election and an open seat to fill out the rest of the term of the retiring Tom Coburn. Youthful GOP Congressman James Lankford from Oklahoma City was running for this seat. Both Inhofe and Lankford won by better than 2-1, sweeping all 77 counties by double-digit margins in a state that even a decade ago had a strong Democratic base in the rural eastern and southern counties. The gubernatorial race was thought to be a somewhat more competitive affair with Democrat Joe Dorman putting up a spirited challenge against Republican incumbent Mary Fallin. And I guess it was more competitive if grading on a curve. Fallin only won by 15 points! Dorman won a grand total of six counties in that rural base that produced 35 county victories even for Michael Dukakis in 1988. It's impossible to overstate how gone the state of Oklahoma is for Democrats and it may well have the most nonexistent path to victory for a Democrat in the entire country with no signs of moderating.
Oregon--Moving from a state that has realigned to being an impenetrable Republican fortress in the past decade to a state that's realigned to being something very close to an impenetrable Democratic fortress, the state of Oregon was another blue state that resisted the wave. As recently as 2000 and arguably 2004, Oregon was a swing state but the math has gotten brutal for the GOP. The Dems lucked out to a degree as Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley's opponent, Dr. Monica Wehby, considered a strong challenger at the outset, became discredited after repeated stalking allegations against ex-boyfriends arose and Merkley won in a 19-point landslide. A bigger question mark going in was whether Democratic Governor-for-life John Kitzhaber would be rewarded with another term even after Oregon's state-run health exchange was such a disaster it had to be abandoned and dumped into the federal exchange. Most Democratic Governors would be sunk after such an embarrassment but Kitzhaber still prevailed by five points. The state's 4-1 Democratic Congressional delegation also held strong and none of the races were even within single digits.
Pennsylvania--The only Governor's mansion Democrats picked up this year was in Pennsylvania, where wildly unpopular Republican incumbent Tom Corbett trailed Democratic challenger Tom Wolf by more than 20 points for months. In the end, disastrously low turnout led to Wolf winning by only 10 points, failing to carry much in the way of coattails into the legislative races or certainly for the heavily gerrymandered Congressional races where the GOP easily held on to its 13-5 advantage. So even in a rare state where the Democrats scored a big win, the victory proved less substantial than expected in the months leading up.
Rhode Island--Annoyingly, one of the only Democrats to win a contested race this year is one of the worst Democrats in the country, the union-busting, pension-stealing Wall Street "Democrat" Gina Raimondo, who sneaked through a primary field crowded with progressives to take a plurality on the strength of her Italian surname in heavily Italian Rhode Island. She had a weak Republican challenger and, despite the non-support from unions, prevailed with a soft 41-37 victory in one of the most Democratic states in the country. More unambiguously good was popular Democratic Senator Jack Reed getting re-elected by his usual landslide margin and both Democratic House members were also handily re-elected.
South Carolina--Business as usual this year in South Carolina, with that business being unwavering support for Republicans up and down the ballot. The race that was expected to be competitive wasn't. Democrat Vince Sheheen held Republican Nikki Haley to a four-point margin in the 2010 Governor's race, but lost by 15 in the rematch this year, despite Haley's barely concealed corruption and crony capitalism track record. There were two Senate races in SC this year. Republican Lindsey Graham won his third term handily, but his 54% margin is still an underperformance given the weakness of his Democratic opponent, suggesting a significant share of Tea Partiers couldn't bring themselves to vote for the "moderate" Graham. A more substantial victory went to African-American Republican Tim Scott, appointed to his seat last year when Tea Party moonbat Jim DeMint left the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation. Scott probably won a decent share of African-American support and won an impressive 24-point victory. The GOP's 6-1 advantage in the House delegation also held firm.
South Dakota--It was always assured that Republican Dennis Daugaard would hold the Governor's mansion for the GOP in South Dakota, the state with the longest-running streak of single-party statehouse dominance. And it was widely expected the Senate race to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Tim Johnson would be equally predictable, with former Republican Governor Mike Rounds poised to easily lay waste to third-tier Democratic challenger Rick Weiland and Republican-turned-independent former Senator Larry Pressler. But on his way to a coronation, Rounds' lazy campaign faced problems, particularly after a scandal arose about selling immigration visas, complete with a top aide committing suicide, shooting himself in the middle of a plowed field. After a brief flirtation with competitiveness, Rounds regained his momentum in October and ended up clearing a 50% majority even with the three-way race. Democrat Weiland's base was reduced to the Indian reservations, the college town of Vermillion, and the state's ancestrally Democratic northeast corner. Pressler's 17% showing probably came disproportionately from would-be Weiland voters, but since Rounds cleared 50%, the GOP victory can't be blamed on Pressler. There may not be oil in South Dakota as there is in North Dakota, but the state's politics are nonetheless moving in the same "Republican stronghold" direction.
Tennessee--My how Democratic fortunes have collapsed in the state of Tennessee after being a quadrennial swing state for decades up through 2000. Now, after 15 years of endless defeats, the party's bench has been erased and their Some Dude candidates for Governor and Senator lost by 48 and 30 points, respectively, to re-elected Republicans Bill Haslam and Lamar Alexander. Considering the state is about 80% white with only modestly changing demographics which are all centralized in Memphis and Nashville, this is a state that can probably be written off for Democrats as a lost cause of Oklahoma and Alabama proportions.
Texas--Any serious student of politics, with the obvious exclusion of MSNBC hosts, knew from the outset that Democrat Wendy Davis was doomed to a gigantic drubbing running for Governor against Republican Greg Abbott, but 20 points is a little worse even than I expected. GOP Senator John Cornyn was re-elected to a third term with his best-yet margin as well, winning by 28 points. As is always the case in Texas midterms where there are never any contested races at the top of the ballot, turnout collapsed and the collapse was strongest among Democratic base voters. There's only one competitive House district in Texas and that's District 23 running along the Rio Grande Valley from the outer edges of El Paso nearly to Laredo. The majority-Hispanic district goes Democrat during higher-turnout Presidential years and flips predictably to the GOP during midterms. It didn't disappoint this year, with Republican Will Hurd beating Democratic incumbent Pete Gallego by a two-point margin.
Utah--There were no Senate or gubernatorial races in Utah this year and there wasn't expected to be anything competitive on the ballot, but the House seat vacated by Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah's Congressional delegation, grew quietly competitive in the end. Matheson is one of the biggest survivor stories in Congress, surviving two rounds of redistricting by Republicans in the Utah legislature attempting to make him unelectable in his seat, most recently in 2012 when he was trailing in every poll but prevailed by one point against photogenic African-American Republican Mia Love even with Mitt Romney winning 67% of the vote at the top of the ballot in the heavily Republican district. When Matheson announced his retirement and Love ran for the seat again, it was considered a fait accompli that the Republicans would pick up the seat in 2014....and they did....by a scant three-point margin. It seems likely there's a Bradley effect going on in Utah given how Love has now twice underperformed polls with very Republican electorates. Had Matheson run again, he likely would have won. Still a loss is a loss and Utah now has an entirely Republican delegation in Washington.
Vermont--The national red tide even managed to crash upon Vermont, the nation's bluest state....or at least it almost did. Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin's bid for a third term fell short of the 50% threshold needed for a definitive victory. Shumlin got 46% to his GOP opponent's 45% while the colorful array of minor-party candidates got the remainder of the vote. In Vermont, the legislature is called upon to select the Governor when nobody gets 50%. It seems unlikely that the heavily Democratic legislature will pick anybody other than Shumlin, particularly considering Shumlin narrowly won the popular vote, but the close shave was yet another warning sign of how Democrats weren't secure anywhere this year.
Virginia--Throughout the cycle, I quietly considered the Virginia Senate race one to watch. Democratic incumbent Mark Warner has been a transcendingly popular figure in the state for more than a decade now and won his first term in a 30-point blowout that painted every corner of Virginia blue. Republican money man Ed Gillespie seemed an unlikely opponent to take Warner down, but polls showed the race within reach for Gillespie, who campaigned very hard while Warner pretty much phoned it in. The weekend before the election, the final poll showed Warner ahead 49-40, a figure that concerned me.....Warner STILL hadn't put the race away and was under 50%, meaning Gillespie could still consolidate the undecided vote and come close. I predicted a five-point Warner win and several scoffed at me, but come November 4 the feared outcome materialized and then some. The Senate race was the only thing of significance on the Virginia ballot this year so turnout was terrible. The early returns that rolled in showed shockingly strong numbers for Gillespie, who maintained his lead until 93% of the precincts were counted and northern Virginia finally rolled in to save Warner's butt with a one-point, 17,000-vote margin. But consummate "centrist" Warner, long known for his bipartisan appeal, was reduced to the same coalition as Obama and Terry McAullife, winning nothing more than northern Virginia, Richmond, Tidewater and a scattering of college towns like Charlottesville and Blacksburg. Even as Virginia appears to be generally moving the Democrats' direction, the state has clearly polarized in a way that no place that isn't part of the Democratic base is likely to be winnable moving forward, giving the Democrats next to no margin of error to win elections, a lesson Mark Warner just learned the hard way. Meanwhile, the open 10th district House seat in the Manassas area, a very swingy seat long held by Republican Frank Wolf, remained in Republican hands as Republican Barbara Comstock laid waste to her Democratic challenger by a double-digit margin.
Washington--There wasn't a Senate or Governor's race in Washington this year, so being an "orphan state", there was some risk that freshman Democrat Suzanne del Bene could be vulnerable in her modestly Democratic Bellingham-area seat in northwest Washington, but del Bene won by 10 points. The only close race in Washington this year was between two Republicans in the dark red Yakima-area WA-04 in central Washington. It took a couple of days to determine the winner. Hint: it was a Republican.
West Virginia--It seemed pretty likely going into 2014 that it would be the year West Virginia officially realigned to the Republican Party at all levels...and so it did. The Senate seat vacated by retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller seemed like a slam-dunk pick-up for Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. Democrats put up their best possible candidate in Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, but the cake was baked in long before election day and I predicted that the "sure thing" nature of pending victory for the moderate and inoffensive Capito would result in a landslide victory much larger than anybody expected. My guess was 28 points, a figure that I was routinely scoffed at about....but sure enough Capito's margin was 62-34, which comes out to 28 points. There were a couple of battleground House races in the state, with 40-year Democratic Congressional veteran Nick Rahall in the race of his life to preserve his seat in the heart of coal country. Unsurprisingly, he lost by 10 points. The other race was more interesting, the open seat to fill Capito's central WV House seat stretching from Charleston to the panhandle. It was theoretically a perfect storm situation where the Republican was an unappealing carpetbagger named Alex Mooney running against a strong local Democrat Nick Casey. But the tide was too strong and Mooney prevailed by three points. But the most damage to Democrats was done in the legislature where the GOP captured both the House and Senate. West Virginia still has Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, but in that state a bare majority is all that's needed to override a gubernatorial veto. This will be the ultimate test of whether West Virginia voters really have the stomach for Republican-run government. When the state GOP inevitably rallies to pass right-to-work legislation and guts every social program on the books in a state where everybody is on the dole and where need is stronger than ever as a consequence of the collapsing coal industry, will they still see Obama as their biggest problem? Sadly, my guess is that it will still all be Obama's fault in their eyes.
Wisconsin--There was only one race of significance in Wisconsin this year but it was one of the most important races in the country. My instinct was that the execrable Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, would prevail yet again despite the closeness of most polls, and prevail he did with another decisive five-point victory over Mary Burke. Now he can immediately pivot to a Presidential run, campaigning on his "Wisconsin miracle" of epic polarization, union-busting, microscopic job growth, and huge budget deficits brought about by ill-advised tax cuts. I have no idea why a state would re-elect a Governor that they know will dedicate every minute after the election towards a Presidential bid rather than the needs of the state, but whatever the case Wisconsin is stuck with this assclown for four more years unless, God forbid, he actually becomes President. Wisconsin voters found another way to dump on the country on November 4 as well with the election of Glenn Grothman to Congress. Grothman, a right-wing nutjob who will more than fill the shoes of the retiring Michele Bachmann for unbridled moonbattery, filled the seat of a retiring moderate Republican named Tom Petri in the southern Fox Valley after he carpetbagged from Washington County to run there. It's very hard to comprehend what's going on in supposedly liberal Wisconsin right now that these lunatics keep finding a way to win.
Wyoming--The only drama in Wyoming politics this year came in the primary, when the odious Liz Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President, carpetbagged to Wyoming to try to take down long-time Republican Senator Mike Enzi. When it was clear she wasn't finding a receptive audience, Cheney dropped out of the primary and not a word has been heard about Wyoming politics nationally since then. Enzi won another epic landslide victory in the Senate race while incumbent Governor Matt Mead won an equally impressive landslide in his race.
If there's a single lesson to be gleaned from the disaster that was Election Night 2014, it's that you should never count on having the American electorate figured out. I learned a few cycles ago that handicapping political races is an unpredictable ride and try not to make cocksure assurances of the outcomes I think are coming, but plenty of other people in the election prognostication business still do and have egg on their race this month. In 2012, Republicans insisted to the end that Mitt Romney was gonna surge to a decisive victory and that the polling was skewed towards Democrats based on outdated models. Democrats had some good belly laughs at their expense when Obama won just as the polls showed, but in fairness to the GOP, there were data points in those 2012 polls that did lend some hope to the prospect of a Romney victory. And after four consecutive cycles where the polls were biased against Democrats, the left went into the 2014 cycle with a legitimate expectation of continued bias and held out for some surprise victories. Instead, the only surprises was additional Democratic defeats of candidates who appeared to be in the lead in the polls. In other words, for as cocky as Democrats got after the polls were right in 2012 and Obama won, it was more or less just a fluke that the polls were as right as they were. Over the last couple of decades, it's about an even split between cycles where the polls are almost exactly right versus cycles where there's a Democratic bias versus cycles where there's a Republican bias. Hopefully both sides have gotten a hard lesson on hubris after two consecutive humbling cycles. I know that whatever the polls show going into November 2016, I'm gonna be paranoid heading into poll closing time that they are wrong....or that they are right!