“Civilization as we know it today would be in jeopardy if the Republicans win the Senate,” declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, in a recent TV interview.
Although Leader Pelosi’s warning might be seen as overwrought hyperbole, the November 4th U.S. midterm elections will set the tone of U.S. policy and politics for years to come.
Today I would like to offer a quick guide to those elections – who is running, what is at stake, and the scheming and planning behind all of the noise. If you are outside the U.S. observing the electoral sound and fury from a distance, or if you are a U.S. citizen hoping to cut through the 24/7 spin and punditry, buckle in for what I hope will be an entertaining and informative ride!
I will start by briefly describing the governmental bodies up for grabs on November 4th. Next, I will summarize the history of the combatants (i.e., the two major political parties), their positions, and their relationships with the U.S. citizenry. I’ll follow that by laying what is at stake on election night and perhaps finish with a few predictions.
The U.S. Federal Government
In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln described the American Founders’ vision for the U.S. government as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, described a republican government based upon democratic principles and specified that the Federal government consist of three co-equal branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.
The Executive branch is charged with executing Federal laws and policies and enacting Federal regulations. Headed by the President and Vice President, the Executive branch consists of 15 Departments (such as Defense, Homeland Security, State, Treasury, and Justice) as well as numerous Agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others) and several staff organizations contained within the White House. At the head of each Department is a Secretary. The 15 Secretaries comprise the President’s Cabinet.
Cabinet Secretaries and Agency heads are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate. (More on that body below.)
Since 2014 is not a Presidential election year, no one in the Executive branch will appear on a ballot in November. However, the budgets, personnel, and leadership of Executive agencies will be affected by the post-election status of the Legislative branch.
The Legislative branch, or Congress as it is conventionally known, consists of two Houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House of Representatives (often called just “The House” by Washington pundits) consists of 435 members. With the stipulation that each state have at least one Representative, the Representatives are allocated in proportion to states’ populations. Seven states have only one Representative each. The most populous U.S. state, California, has 53 Representatives.
Members of the House of Representatives, who must be at least 25 years old, face election every two years. In endowing the House with a large membership and frequent elections, the Founders intended that the House be both more partisan and more responsive to constituents than the smaller and more static Senate.
The U.S. Senate consists of 2 Senators from each of the 50 states. Senators, who must be at least 30 years old, serve six-year terms which are staggered to ensure that roughly one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years. The Senate’s longer terms of service, higher minimum age, and equal representation per state were intended to create a body both more mature and more reflective than the House.
Powers and Duties of the Legislative Branch
The primary duty of the Legislative branch is the creation of Federal laws. This is supposed to happen as follows:
1. One of the two houses drafts, debates, and passes a bill.
2. The bill moves to the other house, where it is debated, amended, and passed in a new version.
3. Either the original house passes the second house’s version of the bill unchanged, or a Conference Committee composed of members of both houses creates a compromise version of the bill, which is subsequently passed by both houses.
4. When a bill has passed both houses, it goes to the President, who can sign the bill into law or veto it and send it back to the Congress.
5. If the President vetoes a bill, it can still become law if both houses of Congress pass it with two-thirds majorities each.
Any bill that raises taxes must originate in the House of Representatives. (For this reason, the President’s 2010 health care reform law is Constitutionally problematic. That bill originated in the Senate, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law’s Individual Mandate is effectively a tax.)
In addition to lawmaking, the Congress is charged with responsibilities meant to serve as “checks and balances” on the other two branches of government:
- Budgeting: Congress controls the purse strings of the Executive branch and the rest of the Federal government.
- Oversight: Congressional committees are supposed to review the work of all of the Executive branch Departments and Agencies.
- Declarations of War: Only Congress may declare war.
The Senate has several special responsibilities that it does not share with the House of Representatives:
- Ratification of Treaties.
- Approval of Cabinet Secretaries, Agency Heads, Ambassadors, and other Executive Branch appointees.
- Approval or disapproval of the President’s nominees for the Federal judiciary.
The purpose of the Judicial branch of the Federal government is to hear citizens’ cases involving Federal law and to examine the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches. Federal courts exist at three levels: the District level, which is the first to try most Federal cases; the Courts of Appeals, to which cases can be referred by the District courts; and the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, which is the Federal court of last resort.
Federal jurists are appointed by the President. If approved by the Senate, they serve for life. Consequently, a President’s judicial choices – if they advance through a sympathetic Senate – can influence American law and policy for decades after the end of the President’s term.
The Founders intended for the Federal government to handle business that individual states cannot handle by themselves (foreign treaties, wars, management of a common currency, and regulation of interstate commerce) and for the states and municipalities to handle everything else (criminal law, civil law, property law, schools, etc.)
Like the Federal government, every state’s government includes separate and co-equal executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Like the Federal legislature, most state legislatures consist of two chambers. State executives are called “Governors.”
At both the state level and the Federal level, domination of the government translates into power over citizens and control of tax money. The size and intrusiveness of government has exploded in the U.S. in the last fifty years. Consequently, the struggle for power is hard-fought and ruthless between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.
The Democratic party emerged in the early 1830s as an alternative to the existing Whig and Tory parties. Championing the importance of individual artisans and individual farmers, the party sought to diminish the residual European-style class structure in the then-50-year-old U.S. The early Democrats favored agrarian expansion into the western North American territories and opposed government collusion with the banking system. Sharing Thomas Jefferson’s view that government necessarily intrudes on personal freedom, the early Democrats sought to shrink government’s size. They also argued that government-run schools “restricted parental freedom” and undermined religious education.
In the mid-19th century, the issue of slavery in the southern states split the party, with many northern Democrats shifting their allegiance to the newly-founded (and explicitly anti-slavery) Republican party. Because Abraham Lincoln (the President who oversaw the Union’s war against the south in the 1860s) was a Republican, the Democrats owned the U.S. “Deep South” until 1964.
The Democratic party’s agenda has shifted numerous times in response to regional movements and internal squabbles. The party was split by the issues of Prohibition (the Constitutional amendment that banned alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933), women’s suffrage, racial segregation, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Democratic south, and unwillingness to reform the big-city “machines” that controlled patronage.
The 20th century moved the Democratic party in the direction of Progressive policies, i.e., the use of big government for the redress of social ills and the redistribution of wealth. Programs implemented by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson forever expanded the size and scope of the Federal government and created both a welfare state and a population of citizens dependent upon it.
The Democratic Party Today
For many decades, Catholics, city dwellers, and members of labor unions have supported the Democratic party. African Americans have voted strongly Democratic since the late 1930s. Today, the grassroots Democratic base includes doctrinaire Progressives and opponents of war, immigrants and ethnic minorities, social liberals, Hollywood, and most doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with many years of formal education.
I have heard anecdotally that purist Progressives are disappointed with Washington’s Democratic “Establishment” because of the Establishment’s hand-in-glove cronyism with big corporations and banks and because of the Establishment’s willingness to embrace war for political expediency. Grassroots Democratic purists complain that there is no difference between Establishment Democrats and Establishment Republicans.
Interestingly, an identical complaint comes from the grassroots base of the Republican party.
The Republican party was founded in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, by anti-slavery activists. From its inception, the party was pro-business and pro-farmer. It supported free markets, small government, and laissez faire economics. The party was moralistic, striving to eliminate sins such as slavery, alcoholism, and polygamy from 19th-century American culture. The party’s moral activism appealed to many Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Low Church Protestants of the era and alienated Catholics, Episcopalians, and members of other High Church denominations.
Because of the party’s anti-slavery roots, and because the first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln (no friend to the federalist yearnings of the South), the Republican party had no meaningful presence in the Deep South until the fourth quarter of 20th century. For the same reasons, African Americans identified strongly with the Republican party until the implementation of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs in the 1930s.
Issues that split the Republican party through the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in many cases the same issues that troubled the Democrats: Prohibition (Republican support for which caused an exodus of pro-beer German Lutherans), tariffs and protectionism, opposition to urban political patronage “machines,” the curtailing of the powers of business monopolies, and the size and role of government. In the early 20th century, Republican Progressives joined Democrats in embracing the expansion of government for the redress of social ills.
Republicans were responsible for the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote (Wyoming Territory in 1869); the first Hispanic state governor (1875); the first female member of Congress (1916); the first Jewish woman elected to the House of Representatives (1924); the first Hispanic U.S. Senator (1928); and the first Native American to be elected to national office (Charles Curtis of Kansas, who served as Vice President to Herbert Hoover in 1928). In 1964, Republicans strongly supported the Civil Rights Act in the face of Democratic opposition.
Recent decades have seen a battle between the Republican “Establishment,” centered in Washington and in other eastern cities and aligned with the Republicans in power, and the “Conservatives,” who are more closely attuned to the party’s grassroots voter base, for control of the Republican party’s agenda.
The Establishment accepts or embraces big government and high taxes – as long as Republicans instead of Democrats are in power and dispensing favors to their friends. The Establishment also tends to be somewhat socially liberal, willing to ignore Constitutional limits on Federal power for the sake of expediency, and hawkish about war. Prominent Establishment figures have included Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and unsuccessful Presidential candidates Bob Dole (1996), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).
The Conservative movement, spearheaded by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and represented most successfully by President Ronald Reagan, urges the party to hew more closely to the Constitution and advocates for free markets, lower taxes, limited government, fewer regulations, and a foreign policy based upon “peace through strength.” Today, at the grassroots level the small-government message is embraced by the Tea Party and the Libertarian Republican movements. Some prominent politicians who embrace small-government principles (and who are therefore despised by the Republican Establishment and by left-leaning news media) are Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Justin Amash, Representative Jason Chaffetz, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
The Republican Party Today
The current geographic strongholds of the Republican party are the Deep South, home to many evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who joined the Republicans when Federal courts turned social policies from state issues into Federal issues in the 1970s and 1980s; the Plains states that run from North Dakota in the north to Texas in the south; the sparsely populated Mountain West states; and Alaska.
Grassroots conservatives have become increasingly disillusioned with cronyist Republican Establishment figures who campaign on conservative principles and then bend their efforts in Washington toward admission to the best cocktail parties, favorable coverage in left-leaning newspapers, and preparation for second careers as highly-paid political consultants. In 2014, the Establishment has been openly hostile toward the conservative base, aggressively running against conservatives in Republican primary races and going so far as to pay Democrats in Mississippi to vote for the Establishment candidate in a Republican primary.
The Establishment’s recent ugly behavior may hurt them in November. All conventional political templates predict that 2014 should be a strong Republican year, but current polling suggests otherwise. More on that below.
What Is At Stake on November 4th
Legislative seats in all 50 states are up for election on November 4, as are 36 governorships. Twenty-two of the 29 states with Republican governors and 14 of the 21 states with Democratic governors are holding gubernatorial elections. According to recent predictions, 12 gubernatorial seats are “safe” or “likely” for Republicans, 7 are safe or likely for Democrats, and 17 are toss-ups.
Why does this matter?
The party that controls the governorship can more easily mobilize campaign and get-out-the-vote machinery for the 2016 Presidential election. The party in charge also determines the boundaries of the state’s Congressional districts when districts are re-drawn every ten years.
In the U.S. House of Representatives
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election in 2014. The House races this year are relatively unimportant, though, because the current Republican House majority (233 seats to 199 for Democrats) is projected to be safe, and because very few House races are actually competitive.
The two major parties, working together, have used voting data to engineer the House district boundaries into often absurd shapes to make them “safe” for one party or the other. This process is named Gerrymandering, after the 1812 Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who created a Congressional district in the shape of a salamander to benefit his party.
Here are examples of two current Gerrymandered districts.
Because of Gerrymandering, pollsters consider only 80 of this year’s 435 House races – 18.4 percent – to be competitive. Current projections suggest that no more than a dozen seats are likely to switch from one party to the other.
Why does this matter?
The party with the House majority sets the House’s legislative agenda and controls all of the committee leadership positions. The Speaker of the House is third in the line of succession for the Presidency.
In the U.S. Senate
By far the most important contest in the 2014 election is the fight for control of the U.S. Senate. Currently, in the 100-member Senate, Democrats hold a 53-45 lead over Republicans. The remaining two Senators are Independents who caucus with the Democrats. To regain the majority, Republicans need a net gain of six seats. In the current political environment, this is just barely possible.
Thirty-six Senate seats are up for election in November 2014. Twenty-one of those now held by Democrats, and 15 are held by Republicans. Pollsters rate 14 of the 15 Republican seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Republicans. Fourteen of the 21 Democratic seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Democrats.
According to recent predictions, Republicans almost certain to pick up the current Democratic seats in the conservative states of Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, likely to pick up Democratic seats in (again conservative) Alaska and Arkansas, and in with a chance in Louisiana, Iowa, and Colorado. Unfortunately for the Republicans, an Establishment incumbent might lose in very conservative Kansas, because he queered the pitch with an ugly primary race.
Why does this matter?
Two words: judicial appointments.
Some judicial candidates believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted strictly in accordance the intent of its authors. Other candidates view the Constitution as an imperfect guideline that should be improved upon in accordance with contemporary jurists’ inclinations.
President Obama will have the chance to nominate several Federal judges, and possibly a Supreme Court Justice, during this final two years in office. With a Democratic Senate to confirm his preferred nominees, he could ensure that his policies survive future court challenges and that, for decades to come, any new policies “legislated from the bench” would conform to his ideology.
How will it all turn out?
Midterm elections during the sixth year of an eight-year Presidency are traditionally very strong for the party out of power (i.e., in 2014, the Republicans). The U.S. economy continues to be sluggish. The President’s landmark piece of health care legislation is wildly unpopular. Recent polls find the President’s approval rating at new lows in the wake of numerous failures, both foreign and domestic, and scandals. 2014 should be a landslide Republican year.
And yet polls show the race to control the Senate to be tight. Why? Most likely, in my opinion, because the Republican base is disgusted with the Republican Establishment leadership. In 2012, one reason that Barak Obama won re-election was that many conservatives stayed home rather than vote for the stiff and bland Establishment candidate Mitt Romney.
Will conservatives sit out the 2014 election too?
Three Quick Predictions
1. Republicans will add a few seats to their majority in the House of Representatives.
2. Republicans will squeak out a majority in the Senate, although we may need to wait for final confirmation until a Louisiana run-off in December.
3. By 9 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, November 5, TV pundits will begin discussions in earnest about the 2016 Presidential race.
Quote for Today
Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia, to Benjamin Franklin, in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”