New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, shown here in January 2014, is attacking President Barack Obama's foreign policy as "dangerous."

2016 Versus 2014?

The likes of Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might prefer Democrats retain control of the Senate.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, shown here in January 2014, is attacking President Barack Obama's foreign policy as "dangerous."

Whose side is he on anyway?

By + More

Who’s afraid of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? It may not only be the Obama administration, congressional Democrats and their allies. According to a new report from Time’s Zeke J. Miller, the ranks of people who are quietly rooting for Democrats to hold the Senate by the skin of their teeth include all manner of Republican presidential hopefuls. Miller writes:

Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.

Miller identifies GOP governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas as being the prime movers in this, as they are all likely to contrast their can-do problem-solving with the feckless gridlock of Washington – gridlock that they’d have a harder time dealing with if the GOP controlled all of Congress. GOP senators too (Florida’s Marco Rubio, Texas’ Ted Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul) would have a greater expectations problem if people actually expected them to do more than inveigh against Obama. Miller continues:

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on Ted Cruz.]

For candidates from either category, a GOP-controlled Senate and House would mean having to answer for their party’s legislative agenda in both a primary and a general election. Whether it be new fiscal deals struck with Obama or continued votes to repeal Obamacare, aides to potential candidates fear that congressional action may put a damper on their boss’ future campaigns by forcing them to either embrace or break with specific legislative proposal as opposed to general policy ideals.

All of these points are good and Miller’s article is worth a full read. I especially like the detail where he notes that GOP governors don’t talk so much about the GOP Congress (honestly little wonder given that the reviled Obamacare is way, way, way more popular the congressional Republicans).

But there’s another reason why Republicans should be wary of excessive success and it has to do with the schizophrenic nature of the modern electorate. The midterm electorate tends to be older and whiter than the presidential electorate and the electorate's increasing polarization (where parties tend to run up steep margins among specific demographic groups, like Republicans among whites and Democrats among minorities) has produced off-year collections of voters that lean Democratic (because they’re younger and less white) in presidential years and lean Republican (because they’re older and whiter) in off-years. The upshot has in recent cycles been parties that have struggled to succeed with the other side’s electorate.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on Chris Christie.]

So while Republicans swore up and down that they were going to learn the lessons of 2012 about growing their base, success in 2014 could kill any steps in that direction (which, in fairness, haven’t much been in evidence).

National Journal’s Ron Brownstein explicated this phenomenon last June:

The peril for Republicans is that a good 2014 election could provide a “false positive” signal about their prospects for 2016, much as the 2010 landslide did for 2012. ... The GOP can thrive in 2014 without solving [its youth voter] problem — but not in 2016. The same dynamic holds for Republicans’ minority problems. The GOP attracted 60 percent of white voters in 2010 and enjoyed a landslide. But because minority turnout increased so much just two years later, Romney lost badly while winning 59 percent of the white vote.

At The American Conservative, Scott Galupo (a former U.S. News contributor) sees something more than a "false positive" danger; he argues that GOP poobahs understand their party's problem full well but are trapped.

Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.

It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.

The bottom line of course is that deep down no one is going to root against their side winning – you take the victory in the hand rather than hoping that a narrow loss will bank-shot you to greater success in the future. But these considerations are a useful reminder that allied political interests aren’t always perfectly aligned and that sometimes short-term success can mask and even exacerbate long term problems.