How Hillary Clinton won the 2014 midterms

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The day has finally come. The ballots have finally been cast. And the votes — at least most of them — have finally been counted.

So who won the 2014 midterm elections?

The easy answer is the Republican Party.

On election night, the party managed to seize control of the Senate by picking up at least seven seats previously held by Democrats, a goal that has eluded Republicans since 2006.

The GOP also captured at least 14 House races, expanding its already sizable majority to at least 243 seats — the most it's claimed since Harry Truman was president.

While a dizzying 14 gubernatorial races were tossups heading into Nov. 4, almost all of them broke toward the GOP — meaning that Republican governors will still vastly outnumber Democratic governors on Inauguration Day.

And Americans are plainly disillusioned with President Barack Obama; according to the exit polls, a full 54 percent of voters disapprove of his performance as president, and 65 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

There was good reason, in other words, for conservative journalist Philip Klein to crow on Twitter that this is what a wave feels like — because it is.

But here’s the thing: In politics, the easy answer isn’t always the only answer, and the winner of an election isn’t always the one who benefits most. Take a closer look at demography, geography and the road ahead for the parties, and it’s clear that the long-term winner of the 2014 midterms wasn’t the GOP at all. The long-term winner, in fact, wasn’t even on the ballot this year.

Her name is Hillary Clinton.

Of course the GOP is celebrating right now, as it should. Any election that ends up putting Republicans into the governors’ mansions in Illinois and Maryland is worth getting worked up about. But under the surface, almost everything about last night’s midterm results — and the map, the math and the legislative morass that lies ahead in the run-up to 2016 — suggests that the former first lady and secretary of state could have a better next two years than the party currently guzzling champagne.

Which is not to say that Clinton will be unbeatable (even if her path to the Democratic nomination got a little easier after Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a likely rival, watched his hand-picked successor lose Tuesday night). Far from it. Clinton spent the last two months holding 45 campaign events in 18 hard-fought states, but almost all the big candidates she stumped for lost, from Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky to Bruce Braley in Iowa. Critics will say her campaign skills leave a lot to be desired, and she certainly won’t be heading into 2016 with many chits to cash in. But that doesn’t change one simple fact: Even Tuesday's huge GOP victory shows that Republicans still have some catching up to do if they want to defeat her in 2016.

Flanked by family and supporters, Senator-elect Cory Gardner, R-Colo., celebrates at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center in Denver on Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014. Gardner defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. (Chris Schneider/AP)

Let’s start with the map. Sure, the GOP won a remarkable number of races Tuesday night. But how many purple states did Republicans actually pick up? There was Cory Gardner’s victory in Colorado — more on that later. There was Joni Ernst’s victory in Iowa. And there was Thom Tillis’s victory in North Carolina. The rest of the GOP’s Senate flips (Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia) and gubernatorial flips (Arkansas, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts) were in states that won’t really be contested in 2016. The Democrats flipped the governorship of Pennsylvania as well.

The GOP’s relative underperformance in swing states is a problem going forward because the 2016 landscape is a lot less favorable for Republicans than the 2014 landscape was. Sixteen of this year’s 20 contested Senate seats were held by Democrats heading into the election — and six of those Democrats were from states that Obama lost in 2012. This gave Republicans a huge advantage. The map was already red.

But that map will be upended in 2016, when 23 of the 33 seats at stake will be held by Republicans. Six of them will be in states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012 (Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin). Two will be in states Obama won in 2008 (Indiana, North Carolina). Two are held by senators who may be retiring (John McCain in Arizona, Chuck Grassley in Iowa). And two are held by senators who may be running for president, which means they can’t run for re-election (Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky).

In other words, for every Senate seat that Republicans flipped in 2014, there’s one — or more — that’s likely to flip back to the Democrats in 2016. The chances that the GOP will still control the upper chamber of Congress after 2016 are slim.

How does this help Clinton? By giving her an added boost on an electoral playing field that already favors a Democratic presidential nominee. In the last six elections, 18 states (plus Washington, D.C.) have voted for the Democratic candidate every single time.

This means that Clinton, assuming she’s the nominee, will start out with 242 electoral votes in 2016; she’ll need only 28 of the remaining 183 tossups to win the election. To defeat her, the Republican candidate will basically have to run the table in the purple states — “not a game plan with a high probability of success,” according to Republican pollsters Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse. Making matters worse is the fact that Republican senators will already be playing defense in several of these states, attracting additional Democratic attention and resources that will ultimately bolster the candidate at the top of the ticket as well.

The math is just as bad for Republicans — and just as good for Clinton. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 59 percent of white voters, a higher share than Ronald Reagan's in 1980 and George W. Bush's in 2004. But Romney still lost to Obama. Why? Because America’s minority electorate is growing every year. To hit 50.1 percent in 2016, the Republican nominee will have to win a whopping 64 percent of the white vote on Election Day — or significantly improve the party’s standing among nonwhite voters, especially Latinos. Otherwise, he or she will lose just like Romney.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 4, 2014. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

For all the justifiable ecstasy among Republicans right now, there’s little evidence that their next presidential nominee will be able to accomplish this death-defying feat. In fact, much the opposite. According to the national exit polls, Republicans won 60 percent of white voters this year — only 1 percentage point better than Romney’s finish in 2012 and 4 points shy of their 2016 target.

The GOP’s performance among Latinos yesterday (35 percent) wasn’t significantly better than John McCain’s performance among Latinos in the 2008 presidential contest, either. It was also worse than the party’s performance among Latinos in 2010. That year, Republicans won 38 percent of the Latino vote, only to see their their Latino backing fall to an abysmal 27 percent in 2012. The fact is, Republican support among Latinos tends to peak in midterms and plummet in presidential elections. There’s no reason to think it won’t follow the same pattern in 2016.

In short, it’s one thing to win an election in a nonpresidential year, when minorities and young people stay home and older, whiter voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate. It’s another thing to win when a Democratic presidential candidate is luring the party’s base back to the polls — especially when that candidate is Hillary Clinton, the most popular Democrat in America.

The question facing Republicans as they assume control of both houses of Congress is whether they’re willing — or, more accurately, able — to do anything to weaken Clinton’s stuctural advantages heading into 2016. Fifty-four percent of Americans may disapprove of Obama’s performance, but 56 percent have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, and 61 percent are dissatisfied or even angry with the GOP leaders in Congress.

More of the same — more gridlock, more obstructionism, more kneejerk opposition — won't cut it; voters expect the newly empowered GOP to work with Obama and govern. But while Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader, says he wants to compromise with Democrats, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be able to control his party’s vehement Just Say No caucus for long. If he fails, Clinton may be able to run as the antidote to D.C. dysfunction — and the GOP’s 2016 nominee may suffer, especially if he’s a senator such as Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.   

That’s why, when the bright lights of election night fade and the chattering class calms down, the GOP’s substantial new Senate majority and surprising gubernatorial rout may no longer seem like the most important things that happened on Nov. 4, 2014. As 2016 approaches, one election in particular — the election of Sen. Cory Gardner — could begin to loom larger.

In Colorado, pot is legal. Young coastal types, especially Californians, are flocking to the Denver metro area. The Latino population is surging. As a result, Republicans haven’t won a top-line election there since 2004.

Until Tuesday night. Gardner isn’t a moderate; he’s a pro-life Republican who ranked as the 10th most conservative House member in 2012. He has opposed Republican immigration reform efforts, voted to shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood was defunded and supported Cruz’s schemes to gut Obamacare.

But over the course of the campaign, the polished, chipper Gardner repackaged himself for a changing Colorado. He emphasized compromise and displayed a remarkable, Bill Clintonesque talent for triangulation on immigration, abortion and birth control. In the process, Gardner may have provided the GOP with its biggest lesson of the night: A Republican can still win in a purple state — if he’s the right kind of Republican.

It’s a lesson Gardner’s GOP colleagues would be wise to learn before 2016.