Democrats got absolutely clobbered in the midterms. The exception was Hillary Clinton.
Amidst the celebration of a Republican midterm sweep that saw the GOP overwhelm Democrats in Senate, House, and gubernatorial races across the country, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was already looking ahead to 2016. The results, he said, were not just a repudiation of President Obama, but of the Clintons. "Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have been all over the place," he said. "They're trying to make out as if they're somehow better for Democrats, but in Kentucky they were soundly rejected."
He then took to Twitter to drive the point home.
Today voters sent a message to Pres. Obama & Hillary Clinton, rejecting their policies & often, their candidates. pic.twitter.com/uQ07JIkwU9
— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) November 5, 2014
It's undeniable that Democrats had an absymal night. They were blown away in contests that were expected to be close. They didn't pull off any come-from-behind upsets. They lost seats in states — Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa — that had seemingly turned blue or purple in recent election cycles. Almost everything went the GOP's way, to the point that Republican Scott Brown must be wondering what he did wrong to lose in New Hampshire.
But contra Paul, if any Democrat had a good midterm season, it was Hillary Clinton. And that does not bode well for the GOP in 2016 and beyond.
The midterms have been widely described as an election about nothing, a Seinfeldian allusion to the fact that there was no overarching theme that drove voters to the polls. (For a helpful contrast, think of the Iraq War in 2006.) The basic context of the election was that Democrats faced deep structural disadvantages because they had to defend more seats in the Senate. Furthermore, this was an an off-year election, when Democratic turnout is historically low. Combine that with an unpopular sitting president and you have a recipe for a strong showing by the party in opposition.
But in truth, the election was about exactly one thing: President Obama. Exit polls show that the GOP successfully turned the midterms into a referendum on his presidency and Washington in general. This has been Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) strategy ever since Obama took office, which led the GOP to spend the last six years turning the capital into a morass of dysfunction. "[M]ore voters said they wanted to send a message opposing Obama than said they wanted to send a message of support," Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post. "Those anti-Obama voters spoke with a roar."
However, the GOP's strategy, which involved a you're-going-down-with-me brand of self-destruction, did have its costs. As Balz noted, "Eight in 10 voters said they disapproved of Congress, and both political parties were judged negatively." If Obama became a symbol for everything that is wrong with the government, the Republican Party did not put forth a platform that would serve as the antidote. Its economic policy hasn't changed since the dawn of Reagan. Its social policies remain anathema to millennial voters. Latinos only turned more Democratic in 2014 than in 2010. And the GOP, after a brief flirtation with libertarianism, has apparently reverted to the George W. Bush school of foreign policy.
The GOP emerges from this election season with other problems, too. For one, in 2016, the electoral advantages in the Senate all swing the Democrats' way, which means the GOP's grip on the Senate may be fleeting.
But the biggest problem is that, in two years, the GOP won't have Obama to kick around anymore.
The GOP, with all its demographic problems, will have to face a new candidate, possibly one who has spent the midterms reintroducing herself to voters, strengthening her network of Democratic allies, and casting herself as a liberal who can play well in red and purple states.
In the 54 days between Sept. 9 and Nov. 1, Hillary Clinton attended 45 campaign events and fundraisers. She nonchalantly went where Obama's political brand has become toxic — to Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, and New Hampshire. She was highly coveted by longshot candidates like Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes because it was thought she could both turn out the base and appeal to more independent voters. Clinton was the main attraction wherever she went, despite technically being a surrogate.
After a string of dodgy public appearances over the summer to promote her memoir, she seemed more in her element on the campaign trail. She did have one slip-up when she was campaigning in Massachusetts, telling the crowd, "Don't let anybody tell you that, you know, it's corporations and businesses that create jobs." Clinton later said she meant to say "corporate tax breaks," but Republicans seized on the comment as evidence that Clinton was either a closet socialist or doing a bad Elizabeth Warren impersonation.
And while Clinton wasn't exactly a critical difference-maker who carried vulnerable Dems in tight races over the finish line, for the most part, she created a lot of good will for herself, especially among prominent Democrats and base voters. This will be crucial for any attempt to reassemble the liberal coalition that turned Obama into the first Democrat to win back-to-back national majorities since FDR. The media coverage was also kind, replete with stories about how Clinton was the kind of Democrat who could win in the South. At the moment, she occupies a sweet spot: She is seen as distinct from Obama, but also a champion of the very same liberal causes that fueled his ascendancy.
The Clintons were not on the ballot in 2014, no matter how much Rand Paul may wish it were so. But Republicans will increasingly tie Clinton to Obama in the coming years, a strategy whose effectiveness will depend on Clinton's own push-pull relationship with the president, and whether Obama will try to hammer out some deals with a GOP-led Congress.
For now, if she is not yet the Democratic Party's de facto leader, the midterms showed that she is something like the party's shadow leader, waiting for Obama to exit the stage.