The obvious thing that happened was that Democrats got trounced. In races that were supposed to be competitive, Democrats lost. Republican governors who were supposed to be unpopular defeated Democratic challengers. In Illinois, a Republican newcomer, Bruce Rauner, handily defeated the sitting Governor, Pat Quinn, 49% to 45%. Republicans will control 59 of the 98 partisan state legislative houses, and 31 of the governorships across the country.
But that’s not the whole story of the 2014 midterm elections. Where Republicans won, popular Democratic incumbents also won. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin defeated Jim Oberweis 53% to 43%, although Oberweis was a familiar name statewide because he had run several times before. That means that about 1 of every 6 people who voted for Rauner split their ticket to vote for Durbin. One out of every 4 Rauner voters split their ticket to vote for Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and 1 out of 3 voted for Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White.
Several ballot questions in Illinois addressed partisan issues: a new 3% additional tax on incomes over $1 million, raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and a requirement to include birth control in prescription drug coverage in any health insurance plan. These were all “advisory questions”, meaning that they need legislation to take effect. They were all pushed by Democrats and all passed by a two-thirds majority.
Morgan County, where I live, is dominated by Republican voters. Rauner got more than twice as many votes as Quinn. But the tax on million dollar incomes also passed 60% to 40%, and so did increasing the minimum wage. Nearly half of those in Morgan County who voted to re-elect Republican Aaron Schock to Congress also voted to raise taxes on millionaires.
This ballot splitting between candidates and issues happened across the country. An amendment to the Colorado state constitution to define “person” at conception was defeated 65% to 35%, although Democratic Senate incumbent Mark Udall was defeated. A personhood amendment in deeply Republican North Dakota lost 64% to 36%. Minimum wage increases passed in Alaska (69% in favor), Arkansas (66%), Nebraska (59%), South Dakota (55%), all states where Republicans easily won Senate races.
Why did so many American voters select the Democratic side of issues and the Republican slate of candidates? Illinois may provide a partial answer. Illinois voters have been evenly divided in statewide races in recent years. Republicans and Democrats have alternated as governors during the entire 20th century. At the moment, Democrats control the state government, with super majorities in both houses of the legislature. But during the five years that Pat Quinn has been Governor, they made very little headway against the state’s deep financial problems. An income tax increase from 3% to 5% was passed, which I believe was necessary given our deep debts, but nothing else has been done. Democrats have failed in Illinois. The responsibility for this failure must be shared across those in leadership, including House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, and throughout the ranks of Democratic legislators. Despite their dominance, Illinois Democrats have been afraid to tackle the difficult problems of the state. And Quinn is at the top of the ticket.
I think there is one more reason. The Democrats lost the battle of public opinion. It is always easier to point to problems, and Republicans at the national level have done little besides that for six years. During perhaps the most challenging period of American foreign policy in decades, Republicans have relentlessly criticized every decision that our Democratic President has made. Without acknowledging their own responsibility for the mess in the Middle East or proposing any new principles to guide our foreign policy, they have feasted on the extraordinary difficulties in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Afghanistan and Gaza and everywhere else.
But the Democrats have also failed to present persuasive reasons to believe in them. After passing one of the most significant pieces of legislation in memory, the Affordable Health Care Act, they have been running away from its initial difficulties ever since. Instead of proclaiming how much good it has done for millions of Americans who previously had no health insurance, they have allowed the Republicans to persuade most Americans that it is fatally flawed.
Democrats have failed to explain why the economic recovery has mainly helped the rich and how they would change that. Raising the minimum wage is only a start, a necessary one, but not much help to those earning just a bit more or without a job at all. On Sunday, President Obama said, “We have not been successful in letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction.”
So Americans angry about the economy have turned to a party which forced an end to unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, which wants to cut both welfare programs and taxes on the wealthy, which opposes doing anything to prevent jobs and profits from going overseas.
We’ll see how that turns out.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 11, 2014