Many African-Americans and progressives are probably scratching their heads and asking the same question today: What the heck just happened on Election Day? I stayed up late Tuesday night watching the election returns, and I've been asking myself the same question. So here is my attempt to bring some answers to the most pressing questions.
What happened on election night?
Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate, as most observers expected, but they also lost some big governor's races and some shocking Senate races.
What were the most shocking races?
Anthony Brown, who was leading in most of the polls and hoping to become the first African-American governor of Maryland, lost decisively. Martha Coakley lost her bid to become governor of liberal Massachusetts. And Mark Warner, who was expected to win by double digits, was barely holding onto a 12,000 vote lead in Virginia early Wednesday morning.
Why did Democrats lose the Senate?
The party in the White House almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections. It also helped Republicans that the midterm Senate races mostly took place in states Obama lost in 2012. If the presidential election had taken place in just the states that voted for Senate on Tuesday, Mitt Romney would have won 165 electoral votes to Obama's 130. (But, of course, that doesn't explain governor's races in places like Massachusetts and Maryland.)
Did Democrats lose the Senate because of Obama?
President Obama is very unpopular in polls, but even if he were popular it would have been difficult to win. Ronald Reagan's Republican party lost control of the Senate in his second midterm election in 1986 even though Reagan had a 63 percent approval rating. President Obama's ratings aren't nearly as high, so it would have defied history for his party to win on Tuesday.
Does this mean Americans agree with Republicans?
Not exactly. Exit polls show the Republican-controlled Congress is even less popular than President Obama. And polls have shown the public agrees with Obama on many major issues, from raising the minimum wage to increased spending on roads and bridges. In fact, the four states that voted to raise the minimum wage on Tuesday (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota) also voted for Republican senators who oppose raising the federal minimum wage.
What issues could Democrats have used to win?
It's not clear to me this was an issue-based election, but the Democrats had a few good ones they could have used. As I explained last week, gas prices are falling, unemployment has reached a six-year low, the stock market closed at a record high on Friday, the federal deficit has been cut in half, and 10 million people have gotten health insurance in the past year. The president who inherited an economy losing 800,000 jobs a month is now presiding over an economy creating 200,000 jobs a month. Remember, Ronald Reagan proudly declared it was "morning in America" when unemployment was 7.2 percent. Today it's just 5.9 percent but Democrats have been afraid to talk about it because there's still a lot of people without jobs.
What could Democrats do differently?
They could start by defending their policies and their president. Most voters probably don't know the economy is improving because too many Democrats have been running away from the president instead of defending him and his policies. Most notable, Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky refused to admit she even voted for Obama in 2012. She lost. Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf campaigned openly with President Obama and won in Pennsylvania. Two different states, I know, but how do you expect Democrats to vote for you when you're ashamed of your own president?
Did voter ID laws contribute to the election result?
There's a lot of explanations for the Republican victories. Recent Supreme Court decisions allowing unlimited money surely helped Republicans get their message out. GOP-sponsored voter ID laws were also designed to suppress turnout for minorities and young people. Those factors may have played a role, but Democrats even lost in races where spending levels were equal and in states that had not enacted restrictive new voter laws. That suggests the fundamental problem was something else.
So why did Democrats lose?
Turnout. Voters usually don't turn out in midterm elections as they do in presidential elections, but the drop in numbers is worse for Democrats. For example, President Obama won 1.5 million votes in Maryland two years ago but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown got fewer than 800,000 in Tuesday's elections. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott won re-election on Tuesday with 2.9 million votes, far shy of the 4.2 million votes Obama won in Florida in 2012. So the votes are there, if Democrats can motivate their voters to show up to the polls.
What were the bright spots in the election results?
I'm not sure if I would call them all bright spots, but there were some historic moments for diversity. There will be 100 women in Congress for the first time in history. That's a milestone but 18 percent representation is still too little in a country where women make up the majority of the population.
Also, Mia Love became the first Black Republican woman elected to Congress. And Republican Senator Tim Scott, who had been appointed to the Senate by Governor Nikki Haley in 2012, made history as the first Black senator elected from the south since Reconstruction. And, finally, in New Jersey, Senator Cory Booker, the first African-American senator from his state, won his election.
Maybe the real bright spot is that the long national nightmare of the 2014 election has finally come to an end. Take a day to think about that. The 2016 presidential election begins tomorrow.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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