Despite Setbacks, Voters Supported Progressive Issues Last Night And 2016 Will Be Different
Republicans took control of the Senate last night, taking Democratic-held seats Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia to secure at least 52 seats in the chamber. It doesn’t take a brilliant strategist to know that last night’s election results were difficult for progressives by many measures. But despite this, the election proved that when voters are presented directly with kitchen-table issues facing American families, progressive issues win. We always knew Democrats faced an uphill battle to retain control of the U.S. Senate this year, but 2016 is a different ballgame. Progressives need to be vigilant and make sure to hold the Senate accountable if and when it pushes conservative policies that would hurt working Americans.
We’ve been poring through the election results all night, and here are three key things for progressives to keep in mind:
1. Our issues work — and they win. There’s no denying that Democratic candidates struggled last night, but in equal measure, progressive issues won resounding victories. Issues ranging from minimum wage, women’s economic security, gun violence prevention, progressive voting measures and securing women’s reproductive rights won across the country.
- Minimum wage: Voters in 5 out of 5 states with a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage approved them, giving a raise to more than 1.7 million workers. These ballot initiatives passed in typically red-leaning states such as Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota, with an average margin of 26 points. Even in races where Democrats lost, such as North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia, exit polls showed voters supported raising the minimum wage 64-33, 59-36 and 56-40, respectively. In other races, like Arkansas, Alaska, and Illinois, Republican candidates flipped positions to endorse a higher minimum wage.
- Paid sick leave: At the same time that Massachusetts elected a Republican governor, 60 percent of voters approved a measure to allow employees to earn up 40 hours of paid sick time per year. This will impact 900,000 Bay State residents, who will no longer have to be stuck with unfair choices like deciding between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child.
- Women’s health: Voters in Colorado rejected a ‘personhood’ amendment for the third time, by a 28-point margin. Republican Cory Gardner, the winner in Colorado, has a long record of supporting ‘personhood’ measures that define life as beginning at fertilization and could ban some measures of birth control. He recanted his support for that policy early in the race (he did, however, remain a co-sponsor of a federal ‘personhood’ bill).
- Gun safety: Voters in Washington State overwhelmingly supported comprehensive background checks for gun sales, further cementing the state’s legacy as a kickstarter of progressive issues.
2. Structurally, 2014 was always going to be a difficult year for Democrats. 2016 is a whole different ballgame. Democrats faced an historically bad map in 2014. They were defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats, including six in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. Historically, the sitting president’s party doesn’t fare well in the second term midterms and turnout among constituencies that are more likely to support Democratic candidates – such as Hispanics, single women, Millennials, and African Americans – is lower in mid-term elections compared to presidential years. This year, in the most competitive Senate races, Latinos made up just 4.7% of voters in 2014. In 2012, across the country, Latinos were 10% of voters – and that share is expected to rise in 2016. The GOP capitalized on these facts — demonizing immigrants, pandering to women voters, denying climate science, and stoking unfounded fears of voter fraud in order to turn out their shrinking conservative base.
Where 2014 was structurally difficult for Democrats, 2016 is structurally difficult for Republicans. In 2016, Republicans must defend 24 Senate seats, including 5 in states President Obama won twice, while Democrats must defend 10. And 2016 is a presidential election year that typically garners higher turnout among communities of color, youth and single women, constituencies that are more likely to support Democratic candidates. The GOP will have to hope these voters get amnesia from Republicans’ 2014 attacks on immigration, women’s health and economic security, voting rights, and climate that alienate this constituencies.
3. Republicans have made a bunch of competing promises. In some ways Republicans showed a gentler side this year — often adopting the rhetoric, if not the positions of Democratic opponents in issues like wages and birth control. But almost all the winning candidates pledge allegiance to a hard-right agenda that includes repealing the Affordable Care Act and taking on divisive social issues where conservative positions are increasingly unpopular. On top of that, we expect that with Mitch McConnell at the helm a Republican Senate will advocate for brinksmanship, obstruction, unfair tax cuts, and other policies that hurt working- and middle-class families. Now that the GOP controls the majority of the Senate, it will have to defend its record on the issues.
To be sure, there were also several surprising losses in blue states last night. Notably, in Maryland, widely favored Democratic candidate for Governor Anthony Brown lost to Republican Larry Hogan by a 9-point margin. These losses also reveal some Democratic difficulties in articulating a coherent and consistent rationale for why they should be elected that must be corrected in 2016.
BOTTOM LINE: Republicans now control the Senate, but progressive issues work. The terrain will be different in 2016. As we head into the next two years, we are committed to advocating for the progressive policies we know the American people support, and we are rededicated to the goal of holding those who disagree accountable.