What the Heck Just Happened? Making Sense of the 2014 Midterm Elections

We now have a Republican-led House AND Senate for the first time in 8 years.
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Amy Mendosa
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We now have a Republican-led House AND Senate for the first time in 8 years.

Some of you settle into the Super Bowl with a vat of chili. Some of you throw on your glittery best to host a Tony Awards party. Last night, we made a big bowl of popcorn and sat on the edge of the couch, watching the election results roll in. If you missed it, I’m here to over-enthusiastically catch you up.

Going into the election, we had a Republican-led House of Representatives and a Democrat-led Senate. When the night began, 36 seats in the Senate (33 regular elections and 3 special elections) and all 435 seats in the House were up for grabs. Most experts expected the House to remain Republican-led after the election (they had a 17-seat lead). The real place to watch, the fiery wreck by the side of the road: the Senate (it would switch if Republicans won 6 races), a few Governor races and a couple ballot initiatives. 

Are you excited yet? Let’s poke our heads out the window and rubberneck the heck out of that wreck.

One of the first Senate races of the evening to be called was in Kentucky. Mitch McConnell-R, Senate Minority Leader kept his seat against a real firebrand, Alison Lundergan Grimes. She gave him an unprecedented literal run for his money. He didn’t wait it out to see if he’d be announcing himself as Senate Majority Leader, giving a gracefully sincere acceptance speech good and early. 

Jeanne Shaheen-D kept her Senate seat against Scott Brown, who has now made history as the first candidate to lose two Senate races, both to female candidates (the other one was Senator Elizabeth Warren). As Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar observed, each state gets two Senators but each Senator can only have one state.

In Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton picked up a seat previously held by a Democrat. Republicans also picked up Senate seats in: Montana (Steve Daines), South Dakota (Mike Rounds), Colorado (Cory Gardner), Kansas (Pat Roberts), Iowa (Joni Ernst, self-proclaimed pig castrator), North Carolina (Thom Tillis), and West Virginia (Shelley Moore Capito). Are you counting? That’s 7 Senate seats for Republicans.

Here’s the absolute biggest news of the 2014 midterm elections: we now have a Republican-led House AND Senate for the first time in 8 years. 

Somewhere, a conservative is yelling “The GOP wins the Senate!” to the tune of “The Giants win the pennant!”

Louisiana is still undecided; neither candidate won at least 50% of the vote which means they’ll be getting to vote again later this year when the two top candidates (Bill Cassidy-R and Mary Landrieu-D) will try again in a run-off election. Georgia is another state that requires 50%+ for a win, but Republican David Perdue just squeaked over that threshold to hold his seat.

In the Governor races, Greg Abbott-R won over filibuster champ Wendy Davis-D, but I definitely think we’ll be seeing Wendy Davis’ name in national news again. In Florida, it looks like the impact of Fangate totally blew over. The race between Charlie Crist-D (fan enthusiast) and Rick Scott (debate rules stickler) ended with a win for Rick Scott. 

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To add to the drama, the Crist campaign has already filed a lawsuit because polling in Broward county opened late due to malfunctioning machinery. Broward county, a.k.a. Snowbird Central, has voted Democrat by a 2-to-1 margin since 1996. If a voting hiccup with the potential for major impact in Broward county seems like déjà vu, it’s because it was one of the contentious counties in the 2000 presidential election.

Rhode Island gets their first female governor in Gina Raimondo-D. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett-R paid the price for cutting education funding in exchange for business tax cuts (and perhaps for his bungling addressing child sex abuse at Penn State in his role as Attorney General), losing to Tom Wolf-D. Maine’s race is too close to call. Confession: I’m personally invested given the incumbent governor’s handling of asymptomatic volunteer nurse, Kaci Hickox (previously illegally detained by bombast, Chris Christie) and his rush to violate her civil rights. For that reason alone, I’m sort of rooting for him to get the heave-ho.

Kansas’ Sam Brownback holds his governorship despite his unapologetic Tea Party leanings and failed financial “experiment” with the state budget. Massachusetts gets a Republican governor who inexplicably paired himself with an anti-LGBT Lieutenant Governor. This one is a head-scratcher for your nerdy narrator. If it’s not a head-scratcher for you, consider: in the last 100 congressional elections, Massachusetts has elected 100 Democratic representatives to the House. 

Speaking of 100, as of tonight’s election, we now have 100 women in Congress.

In Alaska, the Democrat and Independent candidates (Byron Mallot and Bill Walker) joined forces, creating a “unity ticket” in an effort to defeat Republican Sean Parnell. But wait, there’s more. Sarah Palin has endorsed the united ticket despite the fact that Sean Parnell was her Lieutenant Governor. What? Yeah. I can’t report on it as of this filing since Alaska’s results will come in quite late but I recommend checking out the results right away!

Enough about people, more about issues! 

Multiple states voted via ballot initiative to increase their minimum wage. Arkansas bumped it up to $8.50/hr. By January 2015, Nebraska workers can count on at least $9/hr. And, party time in Illinois: You guys will be getting a $10/hr minimum. All initiatives passed by about a 2-to-1 margin. By a smaller margin, South Dakota workers will be guaranteed $8.50/hr. Not too shabby for a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates (3.6%, as of August 2014). 

In fact, minimum wage increases have appeared on 10+ states’ ballot initiatives in the past 14 years and passed on every one. I can only guess that minimum-wage workers want to be paid more fairly and enough of us with higher-paying jobs remember working a minimum wage job un-fondly enough to see the good in raising our lowest wages.

Now, let’s crank the wayback machine to April 30 when Senate Republicans voted to block a minimum wage increase (from $7.25/hr to $10/hr). For some reason of human psychology that I don’t quite understand, voters unanimously vote for minimum wage increases but simultaneously elect candidates from a party opposed to the very idea of regulating a minimum wage at all. Insert exaggerated cartoon eye goggle.

In Colorado, the big issue up for vote was personhood. As the bill is written, citizenship (and therefore all Constitutional protections) would begin at the moment an egg is fertilized, whether or not that egg actually attaches to the uterine wall. High school biology class reminder: if the egg doesn’t attach, you don’t get a baby, and approximately 4/5 of eggs never attach. If passed, the initiative would have outlawed all abortions and some forms of birth control. The initiative didn’t pass. It was the third time Colorado residents saw this question on the ballot; they voted it down all three times.

Interestingly, Colorado chose one of the authors of a federal personhood bill, Cory Gardner, as their new Senator, ousting Mark Udall (Marks Udall’s defeat represents a particular loss to privacy nerds concerned about NSA overreach since he was a passionate and vocal advocate). They’re also giving nearly half their votes (race not yet called) to gubernatorial candidate, Bob Beauprez who thinks an IUD is an abortion and any woman with an IUD is a “walking abortion clinic.” Remember, Colorado also has up-and-running legal recreational marijuana by the vote of the people; Colorado, you’re a fascinating place! 

And, meanwhile, in Illinois voters passed a non-binding referendum requiring any Illinois health insurance plan with prescription drug coverage to offer coverage for birth control prescriptions.

In a one-two punch, Washington state got more gun control. Voters approved Washington Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases, Initiative 594, a law that will require background checks on all gun purchases, including private sales (i.e. gun shows). They also voted down Washington Gun Rights Measure, Initiative 591 which would have prevented both confiscation of firearms without due process and also banned background checks unless federally required.

Florida said yes to medical marijuana but not loudly enough. The ballot initiative needed at least 60% in favor but it fell short by a few points. Oregon voted for legal sale and possession of marijuana by about the same margin as Florida but they didn’t need to get up to 60% so go ahead Portland, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Alaska’s also voting on minimum wage and legal marijuana but results aren’t in as of this writing.

Earlier this week, John Oliver hilariously pointed out that over 1,000 local legislature elections (~25% of all local elections) were decided before polls opened since the candidates were running unopposed. I’m going to go ahead and surprise myself by ending this piece with a quote from Mitch McConnell’s acceptance speech: “… she [Alison Lundergan Grimes] ran a spirited campaign ... it took a lot of guts to take on a race like this … I admire her willingness to step into the arena and fight as hard as she did. We need more people who are willing to do that not fewer.” 

What’s the connection between John Oliver and Mitch McConnell? The connection is that we need more candidates. All politics is local, think globally act locally – it’s been said many times in a variety of ways but ultimately, every election is a participatory system. The more engaged the participation, the more representative the outcome.

Do you need an inspirational story? Here you go. Up until 2005, my precinct was represented in the State House of Representatives by a 16-year incumbent Democrat who kept voting against same-sex marriage (and against other anti-discrimination initiatives). He did this despite representing a district that overwhelmingly wanted it. Many of us had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were stuck with a career jerk who had no interest in actually listening to constituents. In 2005, a twenty-something guy decided he was going to step up and participate. In 2005, Carl Sciortino won the Democratic primary by 93 votes. His competitor went on the challenge him in the main election by staging a write-in campaign. Carl Sciortino got more than twice as many votes in the general election and went on to win three more elections before leaving politics for the non-profit world. In tonight’s election, Christine Barber, a fellow progressive Democrat, won his open seat. One brave person to step up and put himself out there, 93 people to show up and vote.

Do you think your elected officials represent you? If not, how are you going to participate to change that? Also, what elections were you watching? Were you surprised by any local election results?

Update, as of 1:30pm:

I've gotten approximately 1.5 hours of sleep and the results are in! Maine's incumbent governor stays, much to my own single-issue annoyance. It's looking like that united ticket (Democrat and Independent) will succeed in Alaska's gubernatorial race but only ~75% of precincts have officially reported in and their races aren't officially called. It also seems likely that Republicans will pick up an additional Senate seat in Alaska; Dan Sullivan-R is leading incumbent Mark Begich-D by a decent margin. And, in totally unsurprising news, they voted about 2-to-1 to raise the minimum wage. 

By a smaller margin, you can now enjoy lighting up during the Northern Lights; Alaska's ballot initiative on legalizing marijuana passed. Colorado will not be hosting Bob "I don't understand the basics of human anatomy and physiology" Beauprez at 400 E 8th Avenue; their new governor is John Hickenlooper (who, incidentally, wins 2nd place in the "most fun to say" name contest of the 2014 elections, right behind first place New Hampshire Senator, Jeanne Shaheen). 

* All stats and facts current as of ~1 a.m. Eastern time on election night.

** If you want to dig into full-on midterm election nerdery, I recommend Ballotpedia

Photo credit: Troye Owens on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.