The folks on the Right are still celebrating the big Republican victories around the country and in North Carolina Tuesday. And they have a lot to be happy about, defeating Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, taking over the U.S. Senate, and keeping losses in the General Assembly below projections and maintaining their supermajorities in both chambers.
Pundits and commentators are hailing the results as a massive Republican wave in a record turnout election that’s a complete rejection of President Obama’s agenda that leaves little doubt about what the voters want their leaders to do in the next two years.
But no election results are ever that simple and these aren’t either. In fact, despite the overwhelming success of conservative candidates there are a host of places where progressives can find some solace in the results and logical explanations for what happened.
That doesn’t mean that the results of the election won’t have negative consequences for policy decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. They will. A lot of damage can be done in two years as the last session of the General Assembly has shown. But the election itself is a victory of a political party, not necessarily a repudiation of progress ideas or polices.
Here are seven things to remember about the 2014 election.
1) As stunning as the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate seems, it is not shocking at all when you consider the historical context. The average loss in the Senate for the party of a president in his sixth year in office is six seats, about what the Republicans picked up this week.
Republicans know all about that. The president most of them cite as their political hero, Ronald Reagan, saw Democrats gain eight seats in the Senate in 1986, his sixth year in the White House.
2) While many Democrats lost Tuesday, in many places progressive ideas won. Voters in all five states with a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage approved it, including conservative states like Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Alaska.
Exit polls in North Carolina showed that voters supported a minimum wage increase by an almost two to one margin. It makes you wonder why that the issue wasn’t a more central focus of the campaign.
Voters in North Dakota and Colorado rejected the extreme personhood amendments that are a favorite of the religious right. A non-binding referendum on expanding Medicaid was on the ballot in 20 local areas of Wisconsin and passed in every one, including places where conservative Republican Scott Walker gained a majority of votes.
3) Progressives fared very well in many local elections, where Republicans had been gaining ground in recent years.
The victory of four Democrats in Wake County Commission races has received most of the attention, with Democrats not only reclaiming the majority on the board but now holding all seven seats. But Democrats also took over county commissions in Lee County and Chatham County, swept the Mecklenburg County at-large races and picked up two seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.
4) Despite claims to the contrary this was not a mid-term election with a record turnout that gave Republicans their high profile victories. As WRAL-TV has reported, the number of people voting was the most ever in a mid-term election but that’s because of the state’s rapid population growth. The percentage of registered voters who showed up was slightly lower than the average turnout in midterm elections since 1974.
Less than half of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot this year. And the 48.7 percent of the vote that Tillis received is the lowest winning total in a Senate race in North Carolina history and only the second time a candidate has prevailed with less than 50 percent of the vote. The other was Republican John East who was elected to the Senate in 1980.
5) Republicans lost a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court in their “wave election.” Republicans had made the elections for the court a priority in recent years and they still hold a narrow 4-3 majority after Tuesday results.
But that’s down from the 5-2 margin they enjoyed after Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Justice Bob Hunter to replace Justice Mark Martin who was elevated to Chief Justice earlier this year with the retirement of Justice Sarah Parker.
Hunter lost his bid to keep the seat to Jimmy Ervin, and Justices Robin Hudson and Cheri Beasley defeated their more conservative challengers too, though Beasley may face a recount in her race. Martin won his bid for reelection without facing a Democratic opponent, defeating fellow Republican Ola Lewis on Tuesday.
The bottom line is that Republican fielded three qualified candidates in three contested races for the Supreme Court and even with several hundred thousand dollars of outside spending on their behalf, all three Republicans lost.
6) Contrary to claims by supporters of the folks currently in charge in Raleigh, gerrymandering was a huge factor in the outcome in legislative and congressional races. A majority of voters may have supported Republicans for the General Assembly, but there weren’t serious Democratic candidates in many of the races because the outcome was a foregone conclusion thanks to the maps that were carefully drawn just three years ago to maximize Republican representation.
And having ten of the state’s 13 House Districts controlled by Republicans in an evenly divided state is simply absurd. None of the congressional races were close. The maps made sure of that.
Tillis defeated Hagan 48.87 percent to 47.2 percent, yet ten of the U.S. House members from North Carolina are Republicans and only three are Democrats.
7) Most importantly, Republicans won in many cases by softening their hard-right views and even occasionally sounding like Democrats, touting their support of teachers and public education and in Tillis’ case, reconsidering his opposition to Medicaid expansion and calling for over the counter birth control. That may have been a campaign gimmick, but it’s a long way from his flirtation with the personhood amendment during the Republican primary.
Republican John Alexander, who narrowly defeated Democrat Tom Bradshaw in a Wake County state Senate race, constantly reminded voters that his wife was a Democrat.
Republican Tom Murry, who lost his House seat, even tried to mislead voters into thinking that he was endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators, a group that Republicans have vilified for the last four years.
Republicans know their far-right agenda is unpopular and many of them ran away from it in the campaign’s final days.
None of this changes any of the results of course. Republicans still control the U.S. House and Senate and all three branches of government in North Carolina.
But there is plenty of evidence in the results across the state Tuesday that this moderate-turnout-historically-predictable election was not a mandate for more of what the Republicans have done for the last four years.
We’ll find out soon enough if they understand that.