GOP routs Dems in history’s most expensive midterm election

Republicans wrest control of the Senate from Democrats, horses

Republicans wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.

The results are in, sort of, and yesterday’s elections were a resounding victory for the Republican Party. You might replace “resounding” with “pyrrhic” and also get a true sentence. Candidates and unaffiliated groups spent $4 billion this cycle, making the 2014 midterms the most expensive in US history. The financial services industry won the dubious honor of spending the most, donating $171 million to candidate and the groups that support them. And what hath all that money wrought? The GOP picked up at least seven seats in the Senate, giving them control of the other house of a Congress that happens to be the least productive in history. We’re just busting records left and right.

I don’t mean to minimize the effects of yesterday’s elections on tomorrow’s government. Now that Republicans have both the House and Senate, the president will have to thwart their agenda instead of the other way around. Here’s a fun experiment: try to think of what that agenda is without looking at this article in the Times. You’re welcome to review as many 2014 campaign advertisements as you like, since few ideas can be found therein that don’t boil down to “Obama sucks.”

According to the Financial Times, whose graphics are so pleasing they could not possibly be untrue, only 26% of the ads that aired in US Senate races after September were positive. But in repudiating Obama and connecting him to whatever Democrats were actually running, the Republicans at least had a message. The Democratic counterpoint was, um, Republicans are scary? Punish them for keeping us from doing stuff?

Such fuzzy positions are the direct consequence of negative campaigning. As we suggested yesterday, the relentlessly mean and expensive 2014 election can be read as a successful effort by the two parties to tarnish each other’s brands. It worked for Republicans, sort of, in that it gave them the Senate and a way to ensure that little meaningful policy emerges from the Obama White House for the next two years. But it’s hard to see how that constitutes a change, given that it will only reinforce the wall between Congress and the presidency that stymied Obama already.

“I think it really becomes important to appear to want to be a governing party rather than a complaining party,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R–MO) told the Times. We will assume he was speaking extemporaneously and not explore the cavernous cynicism that yawns beneath “appear to want to be governing.” But the same story has Republicans again planning to repeal the Affordable Care Act and announcing their intention to “force Mr. Obama to make choices on bills that Senate Democrats have been able to keep from his desk, potentially touching off the president’s first extensive use of the veto after six years in office.”

That sounds more like a political strategy than a legislative one. Contrary to what Blunt said, it’s an agenda whose apparent purpose is to put the GOP in a good position for 2016. The promise to restore “an orderly process for spending bills”—possibly by reintroducing earmarks—seems like a valuable idea offered in good faith. But the other stuff—balance the budget, reduce taxes, roll back regulation of the generous Wall Street—is standard conservative boilerplate. Lower taxes and lift regulations isn’t an idea; it’s an incantation.

That’s kind of grim. Once again, one party seems to regard winning this election principally as a good way to win the next one. I submit, though, that the flip side of this depressing business as usual is hope.

The most expensive midterm election in history, the post-Citizens United election in which people we will never fully identify spent $4 billion, changed American politics very little. The popular fear that all this money would wreck democracy may not be grounded. It’s hard to tell, since democracy was wrecked already. But injecting an extra couple billion into the system resulted in fewer convulsions than we predicted.

I don’t know if that’s good news, exactly. It’s hard to look at last night’s results and feel hopeful about the next two years. But maybe it takes the edge of the last two, when corporatocracy seemed inevitable. A historically unprecedented influx of cash reified a broken system, but it didn’t change it much. I would have liked to see a change last night, and I think most Americans would have, too. But at least things didn’t get much worse.

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