Republicans around the country are in the midst of a great celebration. Victors in most of the contested Senate races around the country, the GOP commands a healthy majority in the U.S. Senate (their exact lead will not be known until the Louisiana runoff on December 6th). The GOP also picked up several surprise governorships, including traditional Democratic strongholds Illinois and Maryland.
But Republicans might want to put away the champagne for a while longer. Tonight was an important step forward, but several ominous trends loom on the near horizon.
The first is the fact that the Senate looks to be next to impossible for Republicans to hold. The cohort of Senators up for re-election in 2016 includes many Republicans from traditionally blue states who were swept to victory in the conservative furor of 2010. In particular, Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) look disturbingly like sitting ducks. And so Mitch McConnell might be celebrating now (“Most politicians dream of being president,” McConnell’s former chief of staff told Politico, “but McConnell dreams of being majority leader”), but his tenure as Senate Majority Leader, assuming he is elected, could end in two short years if Republicans fail to hold their 2010 gains. This is not to mention the accelerating demographic changes to this country that favor Democrats.
Of course this assumes that McConnell will be majority leader in the first place. This is not given. Noted Republican firebrand Ted Cruz, the junior Senator from Texas, refused to pledge his support of McConnell’s Majority Leader candidacy in a Washington Post interview from earlier this week. This, of course, is emblematic of the civil war that continues to jar the Republican Party. Provocateurs like Cruz, smart as they may be, tend to scare off the moderate voters that often swing elections. As for moderate Republicans, their ability to mobilize the Tea Party base leaves something to be desired. Absent candidates who can unite the two wings of the party, Republicans look to be stuck at the national level until the conflict is resolved.
Republicans are also stuck at the national level for another reason: Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a recent poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, Hillary led her next closest Democrat opponent (the back-slapping, blustering Vice President Joe Biden) by an almost unimaginable 51 points. In hypothetical matchups with Republican candidates, Hillary wins by 7-21 percentage points every time. The Republicans will fight like dogs to take her down, but her widespread appeal on the national stage is formidable, to say the least. Even now, with over two years left until the 2016 elections, “Ready for Hillary” bumper stickers seem ubiquitous. As an observer of the political scene, I’m in awe. As a conservative, I’m getting nervous.
Republicans also must be wary of Democratic attempts to marginalize conservative views, or paint Republicans as obstructionists. Democrats won the media battle in 2012; pouncing on Mitt Romney more than a half-year before the November 2012 Presidential election, Obama’s spin team tied Romney both to plutocratic big spenders (as if donors like Tom Steyer did not exist on the left) and uncompromising Tea Partiers. Both charges stuck. This time around, firmly in charge of the Senate, Republicans cannot give Democrats the opportunity to make these charges.
They must of course guard against allowing President Obama to implement his tax-and-spend agenda, but they also must offer policy proposals of their own. Too often, Democrats put forth a proposal (raising the federal minimum wage, for instance), and Republicans oppose the proposal (in the case of the federal minimum wage increase, because it would kill jobs), but fail to articulate a policy alternative. For instance, Republicans might choose to offer an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (demonstrably more effective at targeting the poor for assistance) in response to a Democratic overture to raise the minimum wage. Too often, Republicans are seen as the party of “no.” This narrative must change.
All of this is not to take away from Republican victories this week. But conservatives should strike a note of caution. It is possible (I would argue it is likely, though I am reluctant to admit it) this election was more about President Obama’s frustrating incompetence than about real enthusiasm for Republican politicians and policies. Thus, it is all the more imperative that Republicans capitalize on their newfound control of the United States Senate. More than that, Republicans must address their internal issues. The clock is ticking — 2016 is just two years away.