The 2014 elections proved to be a big success for Republicans, most notably winning control of the U.S. Senate, but they also proved fairly typical of midterm elections. Low turnout and the loss of seats for the president’s party are normal.
Only 37 percent of voters showed up at the polls, far below the 58 percent of the presidential election in 2012 – but about four in 10 voters usually come out in the years without a race for the White House.
This lower participation hurt Democrats more than Republicans at the polls as the younger, less affluent, more diverse voters who would be more likely to vote for Democrats, were less represented. But so did the map of where Senate seats were up for re-election.
Nearly all of the competitive Senate races happened in “red” states won by Mitt Romney two years ago, giving Republicans a good chance to mobilize those same voters to choose their Senate candidates this time around. In addition, President Obama’s low approval ratings (hovering around 40 percent) and voters’ lack of confidence in the economy were strong clues that we would see a backlash against the party currently in the White House: On average, the president’s party loses 26 seats in a midterm election, and in this election, Democrats are projected to lose about 20 seats. Thus, while Republicans will have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since before World War II, the net number of seats is not unusual.
The gains in the Senate are more impressive with seven seats so far and votes still being counted in Alaska and a run-off in Louisiana in December, both of which look favorable for Republicans. That would give them a 54 seat majority and a net gain of nine seats. Republicans also did well in governor’s races around the country, and now have unified control (state legislatures and governors) in 23 states.
Finally, a few more women will be headed to Washington than ever before – at least 101 – and Joni Ernst, the new Republican Senator from Iowa, becomes the first female combat veteran in Congress.
In addition, two recent Supreme Court rulings – Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 and McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014 – helped to make this the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history, as they, respectively, loosened restrictions on contributions and lifted limits on campaign spending.
In the end, almost $4 billion was spent in this election by candidates, parties, interest groups, organizations, fundraising committees and individuals. Perhaps what is most notable about the sharp increase in spending is not the sheer number, but rather the fact that much of this money came from outside spenders not specifically tied to the candidates or parties receiving the money. Indeed, we saw this charged-up-election landscape play out here in San Diego, as our own Congressional race in the 52nd district – pitting incumbent Congressman Scott Peters against former City Councilman Carl DeMaio – became one of the most expensive and closely watched campaigns in the country. As one of the only toss-up races in the country, this election attracted an unusual amount of national attention – and outside money.
Moving forward, political observers should pay attention to how the changed dynamics of campaign spending, in terms of unfettered spending from outside groups, impact local races.
Another notable race in San Diego occurred between Republican Chris Cate and Democrat Carol Kim, two relative newcomers vying for the newly redrawn District 6 City Council seat. Cate’s win means that the Democratic majority on the council shrinks from 6-3 to 5-4, eliminating their veto-proof majority that has challenged our Republican mayor since he took office earlier this year.
It was a power the Council had used to override Mayor Faulconer’s veto of an increase in the minimum wage in San Diego (though the override was later repealed, placing the issue in the hands of voters in the June 2016 election).
Though still lacking a majority, the mayor is much more likely to see his policy agenda, including managed competition for provision of city services and pension reform, pushed through.
In the end, there were few surprises in this midterm election. However, there was one thing we could have predicted with great certainty months ago: lack of youth participation. Millennials (18-29 years) largely stayed home for this election, making up just 13 percent of the total votes cast in this election (compare this to the 2012 presidential election, when nearly 20 percent of voters were under 30).
Yet another factor in this election was more surprising: Latino turnout and vote choice. While Latinos were a strong base of support for President Obama in 2012, fewer showed up to vote this year and for those who did, Republican candidates were able to pull away some of their votes.
With immigration reform as one of this group’s top issue priorities, it will be interesting to see if either party is able to govern in ways that appeal to Latinos, as they are the key demographic that will dominate political analyses in the 2016 presidential election.
Lindsey Lupo is the director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service. Linda Beail is the director of the Margaret Stevenson Center for Women’s Studies.