Congratulations to our Golden State, which until lately had little to offer the 2014 political landscape other than a goofball initiative that didn’t come to fruition (Tim Draper’s “Six Californias”) and a new low in the conscious coupling of money-grubbing politicians and celebrity dullards (Gwyneth Paltrow gushing over the “handsome” Barack Obama at a Los Angeles fundraiser this month).
In case you haven’t noticed, California has four congressional races where incumbent Democrats are threatened – the most of any state. That includes the duel in Sacramento between Rep. Ami Bera and Republican Doug Ose.
The irony’s hard to overlook: The biggest drag on Nancy Pelosi’s ambitions to reclaim the House speakership may be the same state that sends her to Congress. California, the right’s favorite chew toy, could end up bolstering the House GOP majority in the 114th Congress.
A word of caution to Republicans before they start boasting about this. They also need to focus on adding more governors (Real Clear Politics rates 14 states as tossups – eight Republican, six Democratic) and on regaining the Senate, the bigger prize.
And Republicans don’t want to confuse gains with real progress. “Gains” translates to more Republicans going to Washington in 2015. “Progress,” on the other hand, is a Republican president delivering the State of the Union address in 2017.
And in that regard, the GOP may be worse off than it thinks – despite what the 2014 numbers suggest. Here’s why:
First, consider the Republican path of least resistance to 51 Senate seats in 2014 – winning in six states that are reliably red in presidential elections (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia).
But if Republicans fail to move much beyond 51, it’s because they underachieved in purple states that are pivotal in presidential elections (Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia).
A second troubling sign: familiarity in messaging breeding Republican contempt. In Colorado, it’s the Republican “war on women” (so often does Democratic Sen. Mark Udall rely on the trope that he’s been dubbed “Mark Uterus”). In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is linking her Republican challenger to the state GOP’s conservative extremism.
Problem three: no unified party vision. In 2014, such is the antipathy toward incumbents in general and President Barack Obama in particular that Republicans could win back the Senate without anything resembling 1994’s “Contract With America.” The best thing about that document: it kept Newt Gingrich in check (for a while, at least) as the House GOP had to deliver on contractual promises.
Which leads us to the GOP’s fourth problem: More bodies in the chorus, but not everyone singing in harmony.
In the past two weeks, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida suggested another government shutdown over Obamacare, while Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called for a constitutional amendment barring federal judges from overturning bans on same-sex marriage. So much for the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trying to steer the party away from bluff and bravado.
History shows that a big gain in the midterm election during a second presidential term can lead to bigger things for the party out of power. Look no further than Obama, elected two years after the 2006 Democratic landslide, or John F. Kennedy, likewise elected two years after a big Democratic congressional showing in 1958.
Then again, Democrats won back the Senate in 1986 only to watch Michael Dukakis run a dismal presidential campaign two years later, though Dukakis’ 40-state loss had one benefit: It opened the door to Bill Clinton’s argument for greater party moderation.
And that leads to the final irony. The chief contribution of the 2014 election to the Republican cause may be laying the groundwork for a Republican president – but not until sometime in the next decade.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.