Democrats on Wednesday morning began sorting through the wreckage of disastrous midterm elections in which losses eclipsed even their worst fears.
The scale of the defeats, taken together, was breathtaking: a Senate majority lost, more than a dozen House seats swept away, and Democrats ousted from governors’ mansions across the country.
The drubbing is sure to spark a round of soul-searching, as Democrats ponder whether President Obama is to blame — or whether something deeper has gone wrong in the party that could threaten its chances of retaining the White House in 2016.
Finger-pointing had begun between Senate Democrats and the White House even before every race has been decided. The blame game is sure to get worse in the coming days.
“The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidSanders and Schumer are right: Ellison for DNC chair The Hill's 12:30 Report Hopes rise for law to expand access to experimental drugs MORE (D-Nev.) told Washington Post reporters. “What else more is there to say? ... He wasn’t going to play well in North Carolina or Iowa or New Hampshire. I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.”
Democratic losses were staggering in the Senate. The hopes of party strategists that ominous final polls might have been overstating the Republican advantage proved hollow.
If anything, the reverse proved true: In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst defeated Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyTrump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship Trump's VP list shrinks MORE (D) by almost 9 percentage points; in Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallElection autopsy: Latinos favored Clinton more than exit polls showed Live coverage: Tillerson's hearing for State The rise and possible fall of the ‘Card’ in politics MORE (D) went down to Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Schumer: GOP plan to make Warren the face of Dems 'not going to work' A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (R) by about 5 percentage points. Even North Carolina, the battleground state about which Democratic strategists were most confident, fell: Sen. Kay HaganKay HaganLinking repatriation to job creation Former Sen. Kay Hagan in ICU after being rushed to hospital GOP senator floats retiring over gridlock MORE (D) lost out to the GOP’s Thom Tillis there by about 50,000 votes.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenDem senator asks for 'top to bottom' review of Syria policy A guide to the committees: Senate Mattis on rise in Trump administration MORE’s (D) achievement in holding off former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) in New Hampshire was the only significant bright spot for the party. In the House, longtime incumbents, such as Reps. John BarrowJohn BarrowDem files Ethics complaint on Benghazi panel Barrow thanks staff in farewell speech The best and the worst of the midterms MORE (D-Ga.) and Nick RahallNick RahallWest Virginia is no longer Clinton country Solution needed: Rail congestion is stifling economic growth Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.) were swept away by the GOP wave.
Losses in governors’ races — which the White House had touted last week as a better barometer of a successful evening — were even more shocking. Republicans prevailed in states that are normally considered solid blue, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois.
According to national exit poll data, most voters said they were frustrated with Washington gridlock and with the performance of both parties, but President Obama’s approval ratings were particularly dismal.
Fifty-five percent of voters said they disapproved of his job performance; 42 percent strongly disapproved. When asked to describe their feelings toward the Obama administration, 60 percent said they were “angry” or “dissatisfied” versus 40 percent who declared themselves “enthusiastic” or “satisfied.”
However, 78 percent also said they disapproved of the job Congress was doing, and 60 percent characterized themselves as “angry” or “dissatisfied” with GOP leadership.
“People point to the president's unpopularity in these states, and that was an issue, but in many cases the congressional Republican and Tea Party brand was equal or worse,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
“But, give them credit, Republicans were able to outperform their brand by running smart races, and they had an incredibly simple message.”
Much like in 2010, the midterm electorate tilted toward Republicans — 37 percent of voters self-identified as conservative, 40 percent said they were moderate, and 23 percent described themselves as liberal.
When all of those dynamics were fed into the mix, the results were grim for Democrats.
“I won’t sugarcoat it — we always knew tonight would be a challenging night, and it was for Democrats at every level,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Israel rationalized House losses, arguing that “an avalanche of outside spending” had moved seats the GOP’s way at the end of the campaign. But other Democrats suggested that the party’s message had missed the mark — and that the White House bore at least some responsibility for that failure.
Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin: Sanders backers should challenge me in Dem primary Greens launch ads against two GOP senators for Pruitt votes Poll: Senate should confirm Gorsuch MORE (D-W.Va.), a frequent critic of both the Obama administration and the Senate leadership of outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the president’s policies, specifically on energy, had taken a toll.
“It doesn't make sense that we have to fight so hard against our own government and our own administration and our president to try to find a balance,” Manchin told MSNBC Tuesday night.
Ultimately, Democrats feel a number of races started to slip away from them in the final days. The pattern was apparent even in Virginia, where Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerTop Senate Dem: ‘Grave concerns’ about independence of Russia probe Dems worry too much about upsetting others. That needs to stop. Washington-area lawmakers request GAO report on DC Metro MORE (D) — considered safe by just about everyone — remained locked in a too-close-to-call race against Republican Ed Gillespie as dawn broke on Wednesday.
“You can't only count on a ground game,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill. Mellman described the political environment as “toxic” for his party and asserted that this was something for which Obama could not be held solely responsible.
Ultimately, Democrats feel they had just too much to overcome, including a rapidly shifting news cycle that veered away from their preferred topic of economic fairness, and unexpected crises ranging from the resurgence of Islamic militancy in the Middle East to the Ebola outbreak.
“Over the course of the last year, Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or [has] been drowned out by outside events,” said Thornell.
“Republicans have been effective in pushing out a pretty simple message that the president has been a failure. It doesn’t help party enthusiasm when you have a small but vocal group of congressional Democrats running away from him.”
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson might have put it simplest when he touted the Democrats’ victory in New Hampshire.
“The fact that we got our butts kicked up and down the block only makes it *more* hilarious that Scott Brown lost,” he tweeted.