Red Sea

November 6, 2014
Empire State Building
The Empire State Building is lit up in red after the Republican party victories. / Photo: Getty Images

In the lead-up to the midterm elections, some pundits predicted success for the Democrats based on the decline of white mainline evangelicals, a critical segment of Republican voters for more than three decades.

When the dust cleared on Tuesday night, however, the GOP had rolled to victory nationwide, claiming the Senate for the first time in eight years, increasing its margin in the House, and winning governor's races even in traditional Democratic strongholds such as Maryland and Massachusetts.

So what happened?

According to HDS alumni experts, the decline of conservative evangelicals may actually have enabled the Republican wave that rolled across the United States. Political consultants on both the right and left say that the declining influence of social conservatives made it possible for GOP candidates to strike a more moderate tone than in 2010 or 2012 and focus on the economic issues that fueled voter anger at President Barack Obama.

"The role of the evangelical vote in the Republican Party has waned," says Rich Tafel, MDiv '87, founder of The Log Cabin Republicans and The Public Squared. "This election cycle, the business and freedom wing of the party engaged early in the primaries, as did the Republican National Committee. They supported stronger candidates who managed their campaigns with a less strident tone."

Democratic political consultant and former Massachusetts State Senator Marian Walsh, MTS '82, agrees that the GOP offered more socially moderate candidates and also did a better job getting their voters to the polls. She's still crunching numbers, but she says it looks very much like key demographics—single women, immigrants, people of color—stayed home because of the Democrats's inability to address the economic issues bearing down on them every day.

"The stock market may be soaring, but most working people don’t benefit from that," she says. "For them, things are getting worse. The cost of living is going up. Homeownership is going down. People are getting 401k plans instead of pensions. They know that no one is watching out for them, for what’s fair, so many of them participate in a less vigorous way. Turnout for Democrats was down 3-5 percent in many races."

Mixed Messages

Jeremy Bird, MTS '02, field director for the Obama 2012 reelection campaign, agreed that the benefits of the economic recovery haven't reached many working Americans, and that they're frustrated with Washington. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions about the election based on exit polling.

"Right now, all we know is that Republicans won across the board," he says. "But was it turnout? Swing voters? In Alaska and Arkansas, for instance, voters approved a higher minimum wage, and then voted for candidates who opposed it. It’s complex."

Tafel says that the media's portrayal of the Republican Party as religiously and ethnically one-dimensional was never accurate, and that the success of GOP women and minority candidates in recent years is proof.

"The media has always identified Republicans with white evangelicals," he says. "But South Carolina elected Governor Nikki Haley, an Indian-American woman, and this year elected Senator Tim Scott, an African American man. Utah elected Republican Mia Love, a Haitian-American woman, to Congress. The party is much more complex."

Not so fast, says Bird. It's one thing to point to isolated examples of elected leaders, but it is something different to support policies that benefit immigrants, not to mention "the widow, the sick, and the needy."

"I think we still see a lot of disconnect in terms of policy," he says. "Republicans adamantly opposed immigration reform and opposed expanding healthcare to immigrants as well. And yesterday, many people of color were denied access to the ballot box because of restrictive voter ID laws. I don't think the GOP won because they appealed to minorities. I think they won because minorities were a smaller part of the electorate."

Establishment Beware

Looking ahead to 2016, Tafel says that there are reasons for both Democrats and Republicans to be concerned. He acknowledges that demographic trends are working in favor of Democrats, given the increase in Hispanics, who often see Republicans as anti-immigrant. At the same time, he says that the 2014 election does not bode well for establishment candidates like Hillary Rodham Clinton, widely viewed as the Democratic frontrunner for president.

"This election was a bad sign for anyone who's an established person associated with the past," he says. "That's why this wasn't a good election for Hillary—or for Jeb Bush. On the GOP side, though, Senator Rand Paul is going to be a more interesting candidate. When people are angry, they will take risks with candidates they feel are outsiders. The last thing they want right now is another Clinton-Bush election."

Walsh agrees, and says that the election demonstrates that voters are more concerned with change than party identification.

"I think voters are ready for something new," she says, "and they're not concerned about whether a candidate has a 'D' or an 'R' after their name. I think this election has an impact on Clinton that's not helpful. I'm not saying she should or shouldn't be president, but people have crossed a threshold."

As for Democratic operative Jeremy Bird, he says that he and his colleagues will lick their wounds, take stock, and get back to work.

"Most mothers didn't wake up this morning thinking about the election," he says. "They woke up thinking about how to get their kids to school, whether or not they can afford to take a sick day if they don't get leave, or whether they can put food on the table with a minimum wage job. That's why I do this work. And that's why I'll keep fighting."

—by Paul Massari