Election 2014

Past the Primaries: What to Expect When You're Expecting Midterms

The final brackets have all been determined. What is there to learn from how the 2014 primaries played out?


Let's not vote for devils, known or unknown, this time.
Credit: Scukrov | Dreamstime.com

Midterm primary season ended on Tuesday. The candidates are all locked down, for better or for worse. As the November election looms—or perhaps just limps its way toward a conclusion in the hands of a disinterested electorate—now is a good time to take a look at what came out of our first round of voting. Is there anything that might be of interest to liberty-minded voters, or anybody wanting to triangulate what direction a "libertarian moment" may be taking us (or not, as the case may be)? Is there anything to learn from the way nominations have shaken out?

Americans Have a Funny Way of Showing They Hate Congress

America's approval of Congress is in the dumpster, possibly its lowest point ever. According to one poll, half of voters were unhappy with their own representatives in Congress, not just all those other members who were taking those earmarks that should have gone to the voters' own respective districts.

And yet, when it came down to it, there was very little punishment administered in the primaries. Only four members of the House of Representatives lost their primaries. No senators lost. On Tuesday, embattled Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney (D) was handed his walking papers in favor of a younger model named Seth Moulton.

Prior to Tierney's defeat, it was GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss in Virginia to David Brat that drew significant amount of attention for its shock value. It seemed like a huge moment in June that might have been a portent of something significant in the air. But perhaps not. Sure, Eric Cantor was fairly far from a small-government conservative and supported the use of government to prop up big business buddies, voting for bailouts, war, and No Child Left Behind. But his shocking loss didn't seem to augur a throw-the-bums-out rush, at least not in the primaries. For the November election, though, statistician Nate Silver is currently predicting that the Republicans have a 62.2 percent chance of taking majority control of the Senate. So there will at least be a shift in power.

The Republican Party's Identity Is Still Up for Grabs—But the Democratic Party May Be Joining Them

Several Republican incumbents had to fend off Tea Party challengers, but libertarian Republican Justin Amash in Michigan had to deal with a reversal: He had to fight off primary challenger Brian Ellis, who was propped up by militaristic and crony capitalist establishment conservatives like Karl Rove, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), and Michigan's Chamber of Commerce. His objections to federal surveillance overreach prompted his opponent to call him an ally of al-Qaeda. Amash nevertheless won handily with voters who showed support for his efforts to restrain snooping on Americans by the National Security Agency.  

But the Republicans are no longer alone in an identity crisis. As President Barack Obama's approval ratings collapse and he seems fairly resigned to a lame second term, Democrats are beginning to examine what is going to come after him, and it's not entirely clear. Terry Michael recently noted at Reason.com that the Democratic Party is split into two factions, progressives vs. centrists, anti-capitalists vs. interventionists, Elizabeth Warren vs. Hillary Clinton.

It's still too soon to know whether Warren vs. Clinton will actually become an actual thing for 2016 (Warren is on the record as saying she does not want to run for president). But on Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave us a preview as he fended off Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo represented the centrist, pro-business Democrats (complete with accusations of corruption), while Teachout wanted to ban fracking entirely, raise the minimum wage, and roll back business-friendly tax cuts. Cuomo handily won, but despite having never run for office before, Teachout managed 34 percent of the vote, more than was expected.

The Occupy movement may not have formally amounted to much compared to the Tea Party, but there's still obviously some deep dislike of government and business collusion on the left. Democrats who ignore the trend may end up facing their own Cantor surprise down the line.  

You Can Fight for Massive Public Pension Reform and Survive

On Tuesday, Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo won the state's Democratic primary for governor. Her most notable accomplishment is orchestrating in 2011 a massive overhaul of the state's collapsing public pension program. The Wall Street Journal describes it:

Unlike piecemeal changes in states like California and New York, Rhode Island's pension reforms modify benefits for current retirees as well as for existing and future workers. Cost-of-living adjustments for retirees have been suspended until the pension funds are 80% solvent. The retirement age has increased to 67 from 62. All workers save public-safety officers have also been shifted to "hybrid" plans that include a modest annuity and a defined-contribution component.

The reforms have saved Rhode Island and its local governments $400 million this year alone. That's not chump change for a state that collects $3.5 billion annually in tax revenues. The money preserved thousands of public jobs and freed up money for schools and public works. No matter: The state's government unions sued to block the changes.

Ms. Raimondo negotiated a settlement this spring that would have preserved 94% of the reform's cost savings. But the settlement collapsed—despite support from more than 70% of workers and retirees who cast ballots—due to opposition from the police union. The gubernatorial election presents unions with another opportunity to stymie the reforms.

Reason-Rupe Poll

She also declared at a primary debate that she doesn't want to raise taxes. Unions have attempted to cast her as a tool of Wall Street, as is typical of those who are trying to keep pension programs intact as they are, insolvency be damned. Nevertheless, Raimondo won, bringing in 42 percent of the vote against two other Democratic candidates.

A Reason-Rupe poll from 2013 shows that Americans prefer transitioning public sector employees into 401(k)-style savings programs and want government to deal with underfunded pensions by making employees pay more into the program or reducing their benefits. The public simply is not buying the Wall Street narrative, even among union-loving Democrats.

Will the War Drums Drown Everything Else Out?

Will any of these issues, or the many other policy problems and scandals that have plagued the Obama administration for the past couple of years, even matter in November now that everybody is screaming about what ISIS may or may not be up to?

Polls show that Americans are increasingly willing to call for military strikes against ISIS terrorists, but not for the use of actual ground troops. And while Americans are still significantly less likely to support foreign intervention than they have in years back, there is an uptick in a willingness to do something, even if it's not at all clear that ISIS presents any actual threat to the United States.

Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama presented his case to the American public for strikes on Iraq and Syria, but no ground troops, other than the addition of another 475 military in "support" roles in Iraq. He said he welcomed "congressional support" but did not say he would be asking for congressional approval. The White House has already made it clear it believes the president already has the authority to launch strikes against ISIS. Leaders like Amash and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and some others on both sides disagree with Obama's claim of executive war powers. Others like Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) say the response is "fear-mongering" and dismissed the terrorists as a credible threat to the United States.

But there appears to be much more support from the "do something" coalition and it seems unlikely that Congress will actually rein the president in or actually force him to request a vote (for evidence: see Libya). The war on terror is a useful way for politicians to draw attention away from our many problems at home and force the debate away from domestic policy, where challengers to the status quo could find a million different disasters to campaign on.