Looking back on the 2014 election cycle, I see two largely unnoticed turning points that worked against Democrats and in Republicans’ favor.
The first came in response to the October 2013 government shutdown. This was blamed, as shutdowns usually are, on Republicans, partly because of their skepticism about big government, and partly because media professionals tend to fault the GOP in any partisan fight.
The shutdown occurred because about 40 Republican House members refused to support a continuing resolution funding the government without a proviso defunding Obamacare. Texas freshman Sen. Ted Cruz had been barnstorming the country arguing that this would somehow delay Obamacare from going into effect on schedule in October.
Without those 40 Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner did not have enough votes to pass a funding resolution. Reluctantly, and with behind-the-scene warnings that it wouldn’t work, Boehner went along with the shutdown for nearly two weeks.
Boehner was right about the inability of Republicans to defund Obamacare, and he was right about the public response. Republican poll numbers plummeted, President Obama’s job approval shot up toward 50 percent, and the generic ballot — which party’s candidate will you back in House elections? — showed a big 6 percent Democratic advantage.
Democrats talked gleefully and not implausibly about regaining their House majority. Republicans had reason to fear that they would lose the one part of the federal government they control.
When Boehner got House Republicans to cave on the shutdown; however, voters started noticing something else — something the media could not conceal: the fiasco of the rollout of healthcare.gov.
The Obama administration had 42 months between the passage of Obamacare and the Oct. 1 rollout. In the 42 months between the attack on Pearl Harbor and victory In Europe, the United States deployed a 16 million-man military around the world, produced thousands of ships, tanks and airplanes, and advanced in Europe and the Pacific to produce the “absolute victory” FDR promised over Hitler. In 42 months the Obama administration couldn’t build a functioning website.
Voters noticed. By late November, the big Democratic lead in the generic vote had disappeared, never to reappear. Republican politicians and primary voters noticed, too. The pool of House hardliners shrank from about 40 to perhaps a dozen. No more government shutdowns, thank you very much.
In primary after primary, Republican voters did not opt, as they had in 2010 and 2012, for the loudest candidates standing on chairs yelling, “Hell, no!” Party leaders promoted more palatable candidates and substituted Cory Gardner for the 2010 loser in the Colorado Senate race. Such maneuvers would not have worked if primary voters had balked.
The result is that Republicans fielded cheerful, optimistic, unthreatening and future-minded candidates in crucial Senate races — and won almost all of them. Similar things happened in House and governor contests.
A second, mostly unseen turning point came in late September 2014. Republicans’ numbers rose sharply in the Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina Senate races during the week of Sept. 22 to 28.
What was in the news then? Obama announced we would bomb Islamic State forces but deploy no troops on the ground. And the Liberian Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, was — belatedly — hospitalized in Dallas.
This despite the assurances of Obama and the protocols of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They rejected proposals to bar entrants from afflicted African nations or impose quarantines, which have been standard public health procedure since the Venetian Republic imposed one in 1377. Polls showed 70 to 80 percent of Americans supported quarantine.
Americans were told that “science” justified these decisions. The argument was that quarantine would deter health care professionals from volunteering to work in Africa. But how many people willing to endure such discomfort and danger would be deterred by the requirement of 21 days of comfortable isolation? Liberals accused Americans of “panic” for being concerned about the spread of a communicable and often deadly disease. Their approach reeked of the liberal refrain common in the 1970s and 1980s: “It’s a complex issue; you wouldn’t understand.”
Republican candidates nevertheless called for quarantine. Democrats initially toed the administration line, and then some switched positions. That’s evidence that the issue — largely ignored in campaign ads and coverage — was having an impact.
Ebola wasn’t the only factor in the campaign. But perhaps it stopped Democrats from gaining ground, just as memories of the shutdown evidently motivated Republicans to field more salable candidates. These little-noticed factors probably contributed to the Republican wave, even though they did not cause it.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, where this article first appeared, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.