GOP victories in 2014 were deep and widespread. Republicans unsurprisingly dominated in red and purple states but they also showed surprising strength in blue states in the Midwest and Northeast. Beyond the electoral implications it also serves as a reminder that even in deeply partisan states voters are willing to switch allegiances, if just for a time, to remind their preferred party not to reach to far.
This message has more profound implications for Democrats than Republicans. This is largely due to the fact the GOP went through its own struggles with ideological purity in 2010 and 2012 that cost them winnable races in red and purple states and districts. Democrats, with a sitting President in the White House and a lacking bench, have turned to Clinton as their 2016 champion. Her brand of centrism should aid the party in its quest to rebuild its brand and coalition.
But not everybody is on board with such a strategy. Progressive purists are pining for the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren, a firebrand that fits all the boxes on the progressive checklist. She hates big banks and business, is a dove on foreign policy and is about as socially liberal as you can be, However, her odds of building a sustainable and winning coalition nationwide are much more doubtful than Clinton. Likely an ideologue like Warren would alienate the section of voters both parties need most to win, middle class suburbanites with her desire for higher taxes and greater rredistributing of wealth.
The plight of blue state Democrats in 2014 highlight such a trend. Take the cases of Massachusetts and Maryland in the Northeast and Illinois in the Midwest. Illinois featured an incumbent Democrat going down while anointed candidates in MA and MD lost. Republican candidates running on a platform of fiscal sanity appealed to segments of the electorate Romney and their partisan counterparts (or they) could not in 2010.
But don’t just take my word for it. Just look at the results. In Illinois, a bland self-made Republican, liberal on social issues defeated an incumbent Governor who had raised taxes and promised to make them permanent. Taking social issues off the table he was able to unite fiscally conservative suburban voters around his candidacy. Bruce Rauner (R) matched Quinn’s (D) numbers in Cook County by strongly winning the Collar Counties by huge margins. Exit polls show Rauner won every region of the state minus Chicago and won the middle class By 24%.
In Maryland, outgoing Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley chose his black Lt. Governor Anthony Brown to replace him. Brown ran a platform to keep the tax increases O’Malley had signed into existence in place. His opponent, Larry Hogan, ran strictly on a fiscal platform and tied Brown to tax increases at every turn. Voters worried about spending for no return sent Hogan to a resounding 52%-47% victory. Hogan won both blue-collar and white-collar counties, counties Obama had carried in 2008 and 2012 and O’Malley had carried in 2006 and 2010.
The same theme played out in Massachusetts. Running on a centrist, competency based theme Charlie Baker vastly exceeded his 2010 performance among white-collar and blue-collar workers. Baker attacked his opponent, Martha Coakley, for being a rubber stamp for the strongly Dem legislature and the best way to be a check on their impulses. Republicans in neighboring Rhode Island and Vermont running on similar themes almost captured upsets.
Now imagine this on a national scale. It is unlikely this would turn Illinois or the Northeast blue but it could be enough to turn closer blue states and purple states red. Republicans would be wise to notice. The ideological wings of a party tend to exert the most pressure and both parties struggle to contain such impulses. Democrats would be smart to not let their ideological impulses get in the way of electoral victories but like the GOP is learning from 08 and 012 and Democrats had to learn from 80 to 92, ideological impulses are harder and harder to ignore when you have a recent history of victory.