In the Kansas City suburbs, a man who won’t give his name says he is paying no attention to this year’s election. Why? “Out of disgust,” he replies. In the Denver suburbs, a woman finishing her coffee sees an elected official at the adjoining table. “Are you ready for the election to be over? I am!” she says with evident frustration.
Crosscurrents of dissatisfaction, from distrust of politicians to worries about family finances to fears of foreign threats, can be found everywhere in the closing days of Campaign 2014. Voters in states with competitive elections also feel besieged by the ceaseless negative ads on their televisions. Many are reluctant to answer a telephone call from a number they don’t recognize, fearing more political messaging.
The national environment has been shaped by dissatisfaction with President Obama as much as any other single factor. But there is enough bothering people to have kept many Senate and gubernatorial races close to the end. Republicans continue to be concerned with the party’s poor image and by how many tight races remain in a year that should have them in a stronger position on election eve. Democrats worry about possible slippage away from them in the final hours.
Political scorekeepers are now focused on one big question: Will Republicans take control of the Senate? It is the grand prize in a busy year. The outcome will shape Obama’s final years in office and the opening (and perhaps closing) of the 2016 presidential race. If Republicans succeed in winning the majority, the results will be read, legitimately, as a reaction to Obama’s leadership. If they somehow fall short of an outright majority, the recriminations inside the GOP will be fierce.
But who controls the Senate is not the only or even the overriding question on the minds of many voters. For them, this campaign is as much about disgust with Washington generally — and about trying to bend the political process toward competence and results — as it is about rewarding or punishing a particular party. Though the overwhelming percentage of incumbents will be reelected, politicians who have stretched ideological boundaries or tried the public’s patience in other ways are at risk.
This campaign is taking place at a time when state governments are more unified, red or blue, than they have been in the past. Like Obama’s leadership and the perceptions of congressional Republicans, state governance also is on the ballot, and there are signs of unhappiness with the agendas — and results — in states of both colors.
Whatever the final outcome, it will be difficult for the winners to claim that the voters gave them an affirmative endorsement or provided them with a clear mandate. Most Americans say they don’t think either the president or congressional Republicans have a coherent plan for governing.
The Republicans have made dissatisfaction with the president their primary, and practically only, campaign message. They have not put forward a positive agenda or offered voters a strong sense of how they would try to govern from Capitol Hill with Obama still in the White House.
In the states, there have been reactions against incumbent Republicans and incumbent Democrats. In conservative Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is in trouble because he instituted a conservative, tax-cutting program that hasn’t produced the results he promised. He has lost support among Republican moderates. If he loses, the takeaway will be that he’s set back the cause of supply-side economics.
But if deep tax cuts have riled the electorate in Kansas, tax increases have made voters in some Democratic-leaning states similarly unhappy. Democratic governors Pat Quinn in Illinois, a blue state that has become unhappy with Democratic rule in Springfield, and Dan Malloy in Connecticut are in close races in part because they both raised taxes to balance their budgets.
In Maryland, unhappiness over higher taxes during eight years under outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has made the race to succeed him between Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan closer than expected, especially in a state that has consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker continues to pay the price for what he did in the opening months of his administration. In early 2011, he badly miscalculated the impact of his decision to restrict collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Ever since, Wisconsin has been polarized around its governor the way the nation has been polarized around Obama. As a result, he, too, is threatened with defeat on Tuesday.
The Senate race in North Carolina captures both moods, an intersection of national and state-based dissatisfaction. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has been fighting against unhappiness with the president, trying with some difficulty to chart an independent course. Her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, has been saddled with a backlash against the conservative agenda of the Republican legislature and has struggled to change the subject.
In some states, voters are holding their noses as they vote. The Illinois race between Quinn and Republican business executive Bruce Rauner is one of the nastiest and most negative in the country. Quinn began as the clear underdog, but Rauner’s business record has made him unpopular enough to give Quinn a chance to pull off an improbable victory. Florida’s race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist has produced a similarly sour response.
A series of recent polls by NBC News and Marist asked voters in six states with competitive Senate races to name their most important issues. “Breaking the gridlock in Washington” was at the top of the list in three of the six and near the top in the others. In interviews, voters along the campaign trail punctuate this sentiment with an exclamation point.
The candidates know this. When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who wants to become majority leader, was asked in a recent debate to name his accomplishments, he listed examples in which he and Vice President Biden had produced compromises on issues when their parties were at loggerheads. This from the same politician who once said the Republican Party’s top priority should be to defeat Obama in 2012.
If some modicum of bipartisanship polls well with voters, it’s not surprising that candidates are repeating the message in debates and TV ads. In Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has stressed bipartisanship in her race against businessman David Perdue. In Arkansas, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton says both parties have made a mess of Washington and he’s ready to change it.
In Iowa, both Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst have used the theme of working across the aisle — Braley to try to avoid being seen as in lock step with Obama, Ernst to avoid being tagged as a doctrinaire conservative.
What all the candidates recognize is that everyone is carrying baggage this year. Some of them will lose on Tuesday because of it. For the winners, that baggage will continue to weigh heavily as they turn away from the campaign and look ahead to dealing with the problems in their states and the country. Voters will emerge with their priorities unchanged. They will still be looking for results.