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The Invisible Name on Midterm Ballots

The Invisible Name on Midterm Ballots

By Carl M. Cannon - October 12, 2014

Americans—at least those who aren’t hyper-partisan Democrats or Republicans—aren’t getting the 2014 midterm campaign they desire. We never do anymore. Instead, the electorate is bombarded with feigned Democratic outrage over a supposed Republican “war on women,” sketchy GOP attempts to blame President Obama for Ebola, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s weird fixation with the Koch brothers—all while most of the candidates dance gingerly around the most important foreign policy crises of the day.

It’s so unenlightening that several discerning observers have called this year’s midterm election “a campaign about nothing.”

That was the rap against the sitcom “Seinfeld,” but even when Jerry Seinfeld and co-producer Larry David worked this cliché into an episode, they found this criticism oddly off-base. Although Seinfeld acknowledged that the characters “never obsess over anything that isn’t mundane,” the show was conceived as an exploration into what makes comedy. And what made it work is encapsulated in the name of another successful NBC show, “Friends.”

The meaning of the 2014 midterms can be summarized in single word, too. That word is “Obama.”

Elections in a democracy with 300 million souls aren’t ever about one thing. But dominant themes emerge and determine the outcome in any close campaign. And this one is close, at least for control of the U.S. Senate. Thirty-six states are holding Senate contests, 21 of them are currently held by Democrats. Three races—West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota—already seem likely to change from Democrat to Republican. That means Republicans need a net three-seat gain in the nine states rated as tossups in the RealClearPolitics polling averages.

Those nine are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina. In all of them, local issues, geographical differences, and the candidates’ personalities will help determine the outcome, and with it control of Congress. And in them resides the fun—not to mention the poetry, art, and absurdity—of the campaign trail.

In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor runs an ad accusing Republican Rep. Tom Cotton of voting against funding to fight Ebola. It’s not true, but when Pryor is asked whether he supports the administration’s handling of the crisis, he mumbles comically, and pronounces himself stumped.

For reasons known only to himself, Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley thought it prudent to deride popular Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley—whom he’s not running against—as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

In response, Braley’s actual opponent ran an ad beginning, “I’m Jodi Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I'll know how to cut pork."

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes doesn’t just cut an ad saying she disagrees with Obama on “guns, coal, and the EPA”—she does so while skeet shooting.

And so it goes in the tossup states.

“This has become an election about small things,” former top Obama strategist David Axelrod told NBC. “It’s a tactical election. … Democrats don’t want a national election. Republicans sort of want a national election, but it’s not an election about ideas.”

Axelrod should know. He oversaw an “election about small things” in 2012 while helping the president win re-election. This time, it might be wishful thinking on Axelrod’s part. This is very much a nationalized election, which is fitting, given its national implications.

It is also, despite the cookie-cutter attack ads and pandering candidates, a referendum on the size, scope, and cost of government—and whether it should be centralized in Washington or in state capitals or even more locally. Political scientists have a bookish-sounding word for this cosmic question. They call it “federalism.”

In his first attempt at national office, Barack Obama ran an aspirational campaign that turned on two grand concepts. The first was the candidate himself. By his very presence on the ballot Obama asked voters to clear a great national hurdle by electing an African-American to the nation’s highest office. The second was the nominee’s contention that the “era of Big Government” wasn’t necessarily over, after all, and that Washington could be harnessed to tackle the toughest problems of the nation and the planet, including racism, climate change, and war.

The Democrats prevailed in that argument, albeit with slogans, “Hope and Change” and “Si, se puede!” that were tellingly short on specifics. The corrective came in 2010, when discontent over a host of Obama-era initiatives—a huge stimulus package, rampant deficit spending, and sweeping health care reform—helped Republicans recapture the House.

The 2012 presidential elections should have been the rubber match on federalism. Instead, because of the way the president ran, it was no such thing. The White House delayed the Affordable Care Act’s rollout until after the election, dodged questions about everything from IRS abuses to Benghazi, and sought to delegitimize Obama’s opponent.

The aspirational candidate of 2008 turned into the Negative Nelly of 2012 as the Obama campaign and its allies spent the better part of two years attacking Mitt Romney’s character, profession, and even his wife. In some quarters, the Romney family dog was considered more relevant an issue than the IRS. Federalism’s rubber match became a case of electus interruptus.

To be sure, this year the same campaign consultants with the same determination to manipulate voters are furiously at work. But the environment is a bit different. With no binary choice, Obama is being judged by the American people more by his own record in office and less by contrast with a rich white guy with a gift for inartful comments about his own family wealth. This is not proving to be an advantage to his party: Obama received 51 percent of the vote against Romney; his latest job approval rating his 42.4 percent.

“I am not on the ballot this fall,” Obama proclaimed recently. “But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”

For swing-state Democrats, this is the worst of both worlds. Without Obama at the top of the ticket, they fear the president’s most loyal supporters won’t turn out, while Republicans and independents will flock to the polls to register their opinion of an administration that has pursued a tepid foreign policy while aggressively insinuating itself into the lives of ordinary Americans.

The polls show this dynamic. In every one of the nine tossup Senate races except Kansas, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to consider 2014 a referendum on Obama.  At a recent Hoover Institution conference, Stanford political scientist Douglas Rivers put it this way: “There is no overriding issue other than that Republicans don’t like Obama and Democrats are lukewarm about Obama.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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