Little change in Massachusetts, Democrats guaranteed 2016 win

By Zac Bears

(Deval Patrick/Flickr)
(Deval Patrick/Flickr)

Author’s note: This column is populated with a selection of my tweets from election night.

While Charlie Baker has been declared winner of the Massachusetts governor’s race at press time, statewide politics are unlikely to change with a Baker governorship due to Democratic supermajorities in the legislature and Democrats holding most statewide offices.

But the GOP’s Senate victory guarantees a Democratic landslide in 2016.

The effects of the 2010 Citizens United decision opening up the financial floodgates in politics are finally being felt in Massachusetts. In this election, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent $12.4 million, outspending the rival Democratic Governors Association by a margin of 9 to 1. The RGA’s spending figure is greater than all of the outside money spent in the 2010 governor’s race. It spent more in the last week of the election ($3.75 million) than Coakley has during her entire campaign ($3 million). Six out of every 10 dollars spent in the 2014 governor’s race “came from an outside PAC,” according to Commonwealth Magazine.

In 2010, Baker and the Republican Party spent more money than Deval Patrick and the Democrats, but outside SuperPAC money boosted the Democrat’s finances. This year, Republicans and right-wing PACs outspent Coakley, the Democrats and left-wing groups, further compounding Coakley’s fundraising disadvantage. She also faced a lack of support from the national Democratic Party with more competitive races siphoning off funding.

Maura Healey, who will become the first openly gay attorney general in the United States in January, is the highlight of the Massachusetts Democrats’ victorious candidates. A young prosecutor, Healey fights for the underrepresented and will use the attorney general’s office as a people’s advocate. She is also a nimble politician who transformed a close primary victory against long-time Democratic operative Warren Tolman into a general election blowout.

The Massachusetts ballot questions also highlighted the divided nature of the Commonwealth’s electorate. “Yes” voters on Question 1 repealed the indexing of the gas tax to inflation by the smallest margin of any ballot question. The push to expand bottle deposits to non-carbonated beverages failed steeply, 72.8 percent against, in the face of corporate spending on television, radio, print and online advertising. A repeal of legalized casino gambling was also on the ballot as Question 3, but lost, meaning projects in Springfield and Everett will continue unabated. Finally, the liberal electorate enacted a statewide guarantee of paid sick leave for all people who work for more than 30 hours per week.

Any observer will note that those results do not line up with the standard, left-right political ideologies. Voters seemingly conservatively attacked the gas tax and bottle deposit expansion, while taking a more libertarian view on casinos and a liberal view on paid sick leave. Nationally, Republicans had a strong year in the Senate, picking up a majority, increasing their majority in the the U.S. House, and adding a few governorships across the country. Tea Partiers and Rush Limbaugh will argue that this is a national referendum on President Obama (which has been said about various elections in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013), but the Republican victory stems from larger political trends.

First, Republican candidates do better when voter turnout is low, as it usually is during the midterm elections. Second, the president’s party does badly in the midterms. Since World War II, every president who has been able to lose a Senate majority in their sixth year has lost it. Also, as Senate terms last six years – most of the seats up in 2014 were last won in 2008, Obama’s first election and a very strong year for Democrats.

In 2016, Republicans will be defending more Senate seats than Democrats. Most of those seats will have been won in 2010 – a midterm year that was good for Republicans – and they will be running in a presidential election year, when turnout is higher and Democrats do better.

Not only will Democrats have a structural advantage in the Senate election, but they will also be running after two years of Republican rule in Congress. While a Senate majority is certainly an opportunity for the GOP, it is also an arduous test. Already dealing with significant internal fragmentation between Tea Party conservatives and establishment moderates, the GOP must take decisive, united action on public policy, which may be impossible if moderates will not support radical Tea Party plans that will hurt Republican chances in the 2016 election.

The saddest reality of the election is the doom spelled for Obama’s last two years in office. Facing not only a Republican House but Senate as well, the White House will be almost entirely unable to articulate policy priorities in Congress. While I doubt Sen. Mitch McConnell, future majority leader, will be able to control Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or the other extremist conservatives in the Senate, further legislative disempowerment of Obama is a loss for all Americans looking for someone to lead the country through domestic and international crises.

The close nature of the Massachusetts governor’s race and the victory of the Republicans on the national level show that increasing voter turnout for midterm elections is essential. When a campaign has more visibility, such as a presidential election, more people vote, and when more people vote, Democrats do better. GOP operatives know this, and Republican state governments are now instituting voter ID laws and sharing their voter lists to suppress Democratic turnout.

Even though the Democrats will win the 2016 election, they will still face policy stagnation and government shutdowns if they can’t increase voter turnout in future midterm elections.

Zac Bears is the Opinion & Editorial Editor. He can be reached at [email protected]