The only question about Tuesday’s elections is how good they will be for Republicans.
Anything less than recapturing the Senate—either outright or after two Southern runoffs—will plausibly be spun as a disappointment, especially combined with a couple of Democratic gubernatorial pickups. But even the GOP’s worst-case scenario would entail real gains.
How good Tuesday night will be for conservatives is a more complicated question, one that may also depend on what kind of conservative you are. Even a Republican Senate will only marginally change the balance of power in Washington. President Obama would have to rely on his veto more and Harry Reid less, while continuing to expand his interpretation of lawful executive power to grandiose John Yoo-like levels.
Here are four things that bear watching.
Social issues and the “war on women.” After election cycles dominated by Todd Akin and “legitimate rape,” the conventional wisdom emerged that Republicans were doomed to repulse women voters with social-issues blundering.
The truth is that many swing voters don’t like being harangued about controversial issues like abortion by either side of the debate and will punish the candidate they see as the culture-war aggressor. This year, that has mainly been the Democrats. The two most prominent examples have been Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, whose over-the-top pitch on birth control has earned him the nickname “Mark Uterus,” and the obviously not ready for primetime Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.
Davis likely would have lost even if she had run a much better campaign. But the national media adulation that accompanied her abortion-related filibuster as a state senator apparently misled her as to the issue’s appeal in Texas. Davis has since pivoted to ads emphasizing her Republican opponent’s physical handicap (Greg Abbott has been in a wheelchair since being paralyzed in a 1984 accident) and social-media comments suggesting he would defend bans on interracial marriage (Abbott’s wife is a Latina).
You can make legalistic arguments for the propriety of either line of attack, but it doesn’t take a great deal of foresight to imagine how they will play with normal people lacking deep partisan commitments. And indeed they have largely made Davis look at best desperate to a previously persuadable slice of the electorate.
Udall is in a more competitive race. His Republican opponent Cory Gardner has been shifty about his support of “personhood” amendments—he’s reversed himself on a state pro-life initiative that appeared to impact some widely used forms of birth control while denying a similar federal bill he co-sponsors would do much the same thing. But Gardner has largely blunted birth-control attacks by supporting the sale of oral contraception over the counter.
It’s not that the “war on women” is always an ineffective campaign line, but any tactic can be taken too far. Think of Republicans who looked at the success of the Willie Horton ad back in 1988 and have tried to launch similar “soft on crime” attacks when either crime was a less salient issue with voters or their specific opponents’ records didn’t fit the caricature quite as well.
Will the hawks take flight? While Justin Amash, Walter Jones, Thomas Massie, and Mark Sanford will all cruise to reelection, it doesn’t appear any newcomers like them emerged from this year’s Republican primaries (though keep an eye on Dave Brat, slayer of Eric Cantor in Virginia). There is no Rand Paul.
There might be another Marco Rubio, however, in Tom Cotton: the Arkansas Republican Senate candidate is articulate, fiscally conservative, and quite hawkish. Cotton is also a combat veteran. He is almost certain to prevail against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in a state where Obama is deeply unpopular. With him in, and the relatively civil libertarian Udall possibly out, will it change the complexion of the Senate on important foreign-policy issues like nuclear negotiations with Iran?
A Republican Senate majority could also give Paul new leverage to force congressional authorization of the president’s military interventions. Paul has faced criticism (some of it deserved) for his own position on the war against ISIS, but a congressional resolution could conceivably limit the scope of such action compared to a presidential war, especially if the resolution is bipartisan.
Libertarians and the Senate majority. Libertarian Party nominees may have swung as many as nine races in 2012, including Senate seats in Indiana and Montana. The party was also a factor in the Virginia governor’s race in 2013.
The Libertarians’ best spoiler opportunity—though the party with some justice denies that its absence from the ballot would always benefit Republicans—this year is in North Carolina. Thom Tillis defeated liberty Republican Greg Brannon in the primary. He has since been trailing trouble incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, with Libertarian Sean Haugh more than making up the difference.
As was the case with 2013 Virginia LP gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis, there are questions about how small-l libertarian this Libertarian really is. Haugh supports Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and has criticized education spending cuts made by the Republican-controlled state legislature. Sarvis is running again this year as the Libertarian nominee for Senate in Virginia, but that race is not as close.
What happens on immigration? The one issue where the president could conceivably make some progress with an all-Republican Congress is immigration. Bipartisan majorities in favor of some form of immigration reform likely will still exist in both houses. Republican leaders could decide acquiescence will help the party with Hispanic voters in 2016, or at least take an issue that hurts Republicans off the table.
There are reasons to doubt this, however. There has been a Senate majority for immigration reform, including the legalization of most illegal immigrants already in the country, since at least 2006. That has been true no matter which party controls the Senate. It is noteworthy that the Democrats did not try very hard to advance legislation on this front when they had unified control of the federal government—including a period where they enjoyed a filibuster-proof Senate majority—between 2009 and 2011.
The coalition for immigration legislation frequently fractures over whether the provisions for new workers should be weighted to the benefit of business, labor, or ethnic activists. And a majority of House Republicans still opposes Gang of Eight-style bills, meaning that leadership will have to ram legislation through with more Democratic than Republican votes.
How likely is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who owes his job in part to the fact that Cantor made much more subtle pro-immigration gestures before losing his primary, to do that? Any executive action by the president that impacts millions rather than thousands of illegal immigrants will make legislative progress less likely, not more.
Last but not least, the next two years will help determine whether Obamacare gets repealed and replaced after 2016 or the Republican gains in this election do.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?