If Republicans make significant gains in Senate races Tuesday, then politics will be following pattern. Presidents who are elected by big margins initially and then re-elected comfortably tend to have a lousy time of it in their sixth years.
Ronald Reagan won big in 1980 and won bigger in 1984. He had the Senate with him until 1986, but then the Republicans lost it—bad. Democrats picked up eight seats and took the chamber.
Dwight Eisenhower won big in 1952 and won big in 1956. He had a Republican Senate on and off through much of his tenure, and even the when the Democrats were in charge the margin was close. Then came 1958. Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats (including two from the new state of Alaska). They also secured an overwhelming 283-153 majority in the House of Representatives.
If Republicans pick up the six seats they need to secure clear control of the Senate tonight—or after runoff elections in Louisiana and Georgia—that will be big news. But the real question is what happens with the governorships.
In a wave election, the party that wins big in congressional races also wins big in the states. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republicans took the US House, shifted plenty of Senate seats and made big gains in statehouses. That’s also what happened in a number of historic wave elections.
But will it happen tonight?
It could. According to the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” assessment of recent surveys, fourteen gubernatorial races—including contests in battleground states such as Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—are ”toss ups.” (That compares to eight “toss ups” in Senate contests.)
Why? Because, while Republicans in Washington have produced gridlock over the past four years, Republicans in statehouses have advanced an agenda. Republican governors moved after the 2010 election to implement austerity policies that, while different from state to state, have included assaults on labor unions and funding for public education and public services. Those have not proved to be economically sound, or it turns out politically popular.
How voters express their distaste for austerity in the states could send the clearest signal of the 2014 election cycle.
If, that is, the analysts can be torn away from the jockeying for position in Washington.
Like it or not, the first measure that political insiders and analysts will make of the 2014 results will be a federal one. That’s the nature of contemporary American politics, which have become increasingly Washington obsessed. It is easy to assess the numbers in the Senate and to make grand pronouncements about what that means for President Obama and for the contestants to replace him in 2016. But this is not the only measure. And it may not even be the truest measure.
The results from gubernatorial races will tell us a great deal about where the country is really at after the most expensive midterm election campaign in American history.
If a significant number of these Republican governors lose, the results from their races will be as instructive as the results from the competition for control of the Senate. We’ll learn something if governors who undermined public education, like Sam Brownback in Kansas and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, lose. We’ll learn at least as much if anti-labor governors like Maine’s Paul LePage, Michigan’s Rick Snyder or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker lose. And, yes, it will be telling, indeed, if Republican Rick Scott loses to Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in the ultimate battleground of Florida.
It will be just instructive if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity, such as California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, are re-elected. And if Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is re-elected in Illinois, that will be a win for labor unions—as would be a win for an advisory referendum on raising the minimum wage in that state.
The same would go for wins for proposals to increase wages in the Republican-leaning states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. And if Massachusetts endorses a paid sick leave proposal, that will be a big deal.
Control of the Senate matters. And there will be plenty of talk about what it means if—as has so frequently happened in the past—the party of a president in the sixth year of his tenure loses seats in the chamber.
But the Senate competition is not all that matters. The signals from those contests for control of the statehouses—and the even more direct signals from referendums on minimum wage and paid sick leave referendums—will matter, as well.
If Republican governors who have embraced austerity are re-elected, that could confirm that another Republican wave has swept America. But if some of those Republican governors who have embraced austerity lose, and if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity win, then there will be more—much more—to say about the 2014 election.