It goes without saying that the midterm elections were, by and large, a catastrophe for Democrats. They not only lost the Senate, which was expected, but they lost it by a much bigger margin than anybody had anticipated, which will make it harder for them to retake it in 2016. Just about every swing state went to the GOP, some by ridiculously huge margins. Barring something extraordinary, Mitch McConnell — who is more responsible than any other individual for the GOP’s obstructionism over the last six years — will now be majority leader of the Senate. And beyond the Senate, the GOP strengthened its hold on the House and won governorships in Florida, Kansas, Maryland, and Maine.
It sure all sounds like terrible news for progressives. But while this was definitely a bad night for the Democratic Party, it wasn’t actually as bad of a night for liberals as it might have seemed. Here's why.
A Bunch of Liberal Amendments Passed
The minimum wage was raised in Arkansas, Nebraska, Alaska and South Dakota — all Republican states. Recreational marijuana was legalized in Oregon and Washington DC. Washington state expanded background checks for gun buyers, and crucially, personhood amendments that would have just about banned abortion were shot down in North Carolina and Colorado (though one did pass in Tennessee). Meanwhile, California's Proposition 47 passed, meaning that drug possession and petty theft will be reclassified as misdemeanors, as opposed to felonies.
It’s notable that a lot of these propositions passed in what are generally considered Republican states. This suggests that, while voters may have a problem with the Democratic Party brand, and perhaps President Obama in particular, they’re actually somewhat on board with liberal values and policies. And that's very good news for progressives, moving forward.
A Couple of Notable Democrats Did Win
There were also a couple of small silver linings electorally for Democrats. Scott Brown, the Republican from Massachusetts who moved to New Hampshire so he could be in the Senate again, lost for the second time in two years, becoming the first Senate candidate in history to lose twice to two different women (it was Elizabeth Warren in 2012; this time, it was Jeanne Shaheen).
Democrat Tom Wolf won the governor’s mansion in Pennsylvania, which is very good news for Medicaid recipients in the state. It’s complicated, but the long and short of it is that Wolf, unlike his Republican predecessor, will implement the Affordable Care Act’s medicaid expansion exactly as the law intended; as a result, a subset of Medicaid recipients that would have had to pay premiums starting in 2016 if Wolf had lost will now receive health care premium-free.
John Hickenlooper hung on in the Colorado governor’s race. During his last term, Hickenlooper gave recreational marijuana the go-ahead, then helped usher in strict gun control regulations in the state; the fact that he didn’t get defeated in the Republican wave is a nice consolation prize for those upset by the defeat of Mark Udall, the Democratic Senator who lost last night. Oh, and this wasn't a huge surprise, but California bucked the national trend and stayed its liberal self and reelected Governor Jerry Brown to an unprecedented fourth term.
Also worth celebrating? There are now more women in congress than at any point in U.S. history. While a lot of these women are Republicans who probably won’t be voting for feminist policies, that’s still an enormous historical milestone, and one worth celebrating.
What It Means For 2016
Sure, the midterms were good for Chris Christie — who is head of the Republican Governor’s Association and oversaw Republican victories across the country — and Scott Walker, who won election for the third time in four years (I hate to say it, but that guy’s a juggernaut). They’ll be at each other’s throats when they’re inevitably both running for president next year, but they can give each other a pat on the back for the time being.
But the midterms were also, in a weird way, good for Hillary Clinton, as she can now easily swoop in as the Democrats’ lone savior after a brutal drubbing at the polls. I wouldn’t be surprised if she announces her presidential campaign very, very soon.
One more point about 2016 that deserves mention: Nobody is talking about this, but Republicans failed to retake the state legislature in Kentucky, which is very bad news for Rand Paul. Kentucky has a law that bans candidates from running for the Senate and President simultaneously; if Paul is serious about running in 2016, then, he’ll have to give up his Senate seat. Paul was hoping that the GOP would win control of the state legislature and change the state’s election law, but that didn’t happen. As such, he’s going to have to give up his Senate seat if he really wants to run for president — and if he wins the nomination but loses the presidential race (a very real possibility), he won’t be in the Senate anymore.
So, while this was undoubtedly a brutal night for Democrats, it wasn’t quite as bad for progressives as it may have appeared on the surface — a nice illustration of the fact that the interests of political parties don’t always align perfectly with the interests of their adherents.