GWEN IFILL: A bad week for Democrats, a great week for Republicans, but what about the voters? We sort through the 2014 elections and what they tell us about the country right now, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SENATOR-ELECT CORY GARDNER (R-CO): (From videotape.) Tonight we shook up the Senate.
SENATOR-ELECT JONI ERNST (R-IA): (From videotape.) We are heading to Washington, and we are going to make them squeal.
REINCE PRIEBUS (chairman, Republican National Committee): (From videotape.) It was absolutely a mandate. It was a mandate really opposing the principles and the policies of Barack Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too.
MS. IFILL: The sounds and the sights of an eventful week in American politics; conciliatory signs –
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) I think there are a lot of people who believe that just because you have divided government, that doesn’t mean you don’t accomplish anything.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell.
MS. IFILL: - and signs of conflict to come.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) I believe if the president continues to act on his own, he is going to poison the well. When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself.
MS. IFILL: So did the White House and Congress get the message the voters were sending in a sweep that stretched from statehouses to the Senate? We search for answers with Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Beth Reinhard, national politics correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
By now we know how it all turned out – a 52-seat Republican Senate majority, with two more seats leaning that way, expanding the GOP majority in the House, at least 31 Republican governors, and a hefty Republican majority in state legislatures.
Democrats could have searched high and low this week and found only a glimmer of good news in Tuesday night’s election results. So today it was time for lunch at the White House, where the president was the only one who looked comfortable.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) What we’ve seen now for a number of cycles is that the American people just want to see work done here in Washington. I think they’re frustrated by the gridlock. They’d like to see more cooperation. And I think all of us have the responsibility, me in particular, to try to make that happen.
MS. IFILL: But there are already signs of strain, which we’ll get to in a moment.
First, so what happened Tuesday? Was it a message or was it a lack of a message, Dan?
DAN BALZ: Well, it was a message of discontent and it was a message of criticism and complaint about President Obama. I mean, we talked all year that this is a midterm election. In the sixth year of a presidency, midterm elections are, first and foremost, about the president. And the president’s part took a bigger beating than people had predicted. I mean, it was a rout in the end.
And so it was a message, A, of going against the president, but it was broader than that. I mean, the level of unhappiness that we saw on election night in the exit polls was quite significant, whether it was on the direction of the country, the approval rating of the president, the approval of the Republican Party, the approval of the Democratic Party, or a sense of where the economy is going. Everything about that was pessimistic.
MS. IFILL: So when the president says I heard those of you who voted and I’ve heard those of you who didn’t, what is he hearing?
JOHN HARWOOD: I think what he’s saying, I got elected two years ago with a different electorate that voted then. He was harking back to a broader set of people who voted for him. One of the things that happens in midterm elections is you have a significant drop-off in the number of people who participate. It’s an older, whiter electorate than the one that elected him twice. He was pointing back to that electorate.
And I think it’s kind of interesting, the comments you just played about him saying they want us to act, and it especially falls to me. I think that was a justification for the executive action he’s going to take on immigration shortly. And one of the reasons why I think he may be more comfortable than other people at that table is that he thinks he has the power to do that, and he intends to do it.
MS. IFILL: What do you think about that, Beth?
BETH REINHARD: Right. Well, I agree with Dan. I mean, the level of unhappiness was not just directed – it was directed largely at President Obama and Democrats, but also people did express, you know, a large unhappiness with the Republican Party, even though you saw them winning.
And it was interesting, some of the comments by former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour. It wasn’t just a, you know, victory lap for some of these folks. They said we know that they’ve given us the reins right now, but we know that this isn’t them embracing us either.
MS. IFILL: That’s not what Reince Priebus said.
MS. REINHARD: No. But he’s the cheerleader for the party, so he has to be – he has to have a different tone than that.
MS. IFILL: So if there’s impatience and there’s alienation among the electorate, we’re not getting that from the White House. We’re getting don’t worry about it; we’re just going to forge ahead.
PETER BAKER: It was interesting to listen to the president the day after the election. He didn’t come out with a hat in hand. He was not chastened. He didn’t –
MR. HARWOOD: He gave us no slogan.
MR. BAKER: He gave us no slogan. He would not rise to the bait. Was it a shellacking? Was it a thumping? He refused to play that game. He knew that if he did, that would become the slogan for a long time.
And he said, look, you know, he interpreted the election as we need to work together, as opposed to the voters don’t like what I’m doing, which is, of course, a better interpretation from his point of view. Reince Priebus is going to say, no, it’s they don’t like you -
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BAKER: - and what you’re doing. And the president is not going to give in to that.
MS. IFILL: It’s also possible that voters were just sick of this election. Everywhere I traveled or where you guys traveled, there were ads everywhere. And we got together and looked at the top five most expensive 2014 Senate races. In North Carolina, they spent $111 million. And in Colorado, they were right on their heels with $97 million; in Iowa, $88 million; in Kentucky, 78, I think that is, million dollars; and in Georgia, $70 million. And in all of those cases the Republicans won, even though they may have not been the big spenders.
Did that depress turnout? Do we know yet?
MR. BALZ: I think that there was – I think Democratic turnout was clearly down. I mean, we know, in a midterm election, as John said, Democrats have a harder time getting their vote out. We heard so much in those final days about it’s all about turnout. It turned out it wasn’t all about turnout.
MS. IFILL: No.
MR. BALZ: If you look at the victory margins of some of the Republicans, in the Arkansas Senate race, 17-point margin. Mitch McConnell, who was supposedly in at least a moderately competitive race, won by more than a dozen points. So in the end, these races were not that close. But all of that advertising certainly created an environment of unhappiness with the voters.
MS. IFILL: My favorite number in all of that is Alaska, where they spent approximately $120 per voter on advertising; not the most expensive, but certainly the most costly.
MR. HARWOOD: Voters could have come up with a much better use for that money, I think.
MS. IFILL: They still don’t know the outcome, as of tonight, in Alaska.
There were a lot of close calls Tuesday night, among them in Kansas and in Virginia.
SENATOR PAT ROBERTS (R-KS): (From videotape.) You did it. We said for months that the road to a Republican majority in the United States Senate led through Kansas, and we did it.
SENATOR MARK WARNER (D-VA): (From videotape.) The thing that we’re seeing all across the country is that people are tired of politics as usual. At the end of the day, they want to hire folks to go to Washington that can work across party lines, that can actually put the people’s business first.
MS. IFILL: Pat Roberts, Mark Warner – one a Republican, one a Democrat. They both narrowly survived, but for very different reasons. Isn’t that true, Beth?
MS. REINHARD: Well, what’s interesting also, comparing those two states – I mean, you have Pat Roberts, who looked like he was in trouble in a very red state, which was very surprising at the time.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. REINHARD: Mark Warner, we thought, would coast right into reelection in a state that had, you know, elected Barack Obama twice, last year elected a Democratic governor. Virginia was thought to be, you know, pretty solidly Democratic, yet he had a very tough race.
And it kind of gets to the breadth of the Republican inroads. It was, you know, they carried the red states. They were very competitive in purple states, almost winning in Virginia, but winning in states like Colorado and Iowa and New Hampshire that are going to be key in the presidential race, and then also notching victories in blue states; in Massachusetts in the governor’s race, in Maryland in the governor’s race.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about governors’ races, Dan, because that was remarkable in and of themselves.
MR. BALZ: I think the most remarkable thing about it was there were a lot of incumbent governors of both parties who were in trouble. And for the most part, the Republicans survived and a number of the Democrats didn’t. I mean, the Illinois governor, Pat Quinn, was defeated. As Beth mentioned, they lost Maryland and they lost Massachusetts.
MR. HARWOOD: Hickenlooper survived in Colorado.
MR. BALZ: Hickenlooper survived, and actually survived – had a slightly bigger margin than Cory Gardner did in winning the Senate race. So he’s got some bragging rights. But Scott Walker in Wisconsin was supposedly in a tough race. He won by about six points; Rick Snyder in Michigan; Rick Scott in Florida, who won by one point, I believe, it turned out to be; Nathan Deal in Georgia, who people thought maybe Jimmy Carter’s grandson could give him a run. That turned out not to be that close; Sam Brownback in Kansas, who we knew was in trouble, nonetheless managed to win by, you know, four or five points.
MS. IFILL: Did we get it wrong, or did they get it wrong?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think the polls did skew more Democratic than the electorate actually turned out to be. Now, that may be that things changed, by the way, in the last few days, or it may be that the polls aren’t sampling correctly. I think there’ll be a lot of second-guessing about that.
But it’s interesting. Some of the states that Beth and Dan just mentioned are states where the president did campaign. He didn’t get out a lot. And he kind of bristled at that. The Democratic candidates didn’t want him to come. And he made it a point, basically, that if he had come, maybe it would have been different. But the truth is, even some of the places he did go – Illinois; his home state, Maryland – both those lost. Connecticut almost lost. You know, there’s not a lot of evidence that his campaigning was any better than the non-campaigning.
MR. HARWOOD: I think to think that would have made a difference is to assign a lot greater importance to personal campaigning in a midterm election by a president.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. HARWOOD: Having covered the 1986 campaign with Ronald Reagan, who two years before won a landslide, and he saw all the candidates he campaigned for go down – Democrats retook the Senate – it wouldn’t have made much difference.
And you were talking about Maryland. Bill Clinton went into Maryland for Anthony Brown, the Democratic candidate, which to me, along with the –
MS. IFILL: And so did the president, by the way. He went into Maryland too.
MR. HARWOOD: Correct. Correct. And Anthony Brown closed in his campaign with a Bill Clinton testimonial advertisement.
MS. IFILL: Right – as did Charlie Crist in Florida.
MR. HARWOOD: It simply didn’t make a difference. I thought myself that the Anthony Brown result and the Gillespie result were the two most shocking results of the election. Nobody saw Virginia close and nobody saw Hogan winning.
MS. IFILL: But there are still a couple of people hanging out there. One of them is Mary Landrieu, who people knew she was in trouble, but she is in real, real trouble. And Democratic money people are thinking maybe they ought to spend their money another way. So are we canceling our dinner reservations in New Orleans?
MR. BALZ: Never. (Laughter.) But I think, even before Tuesday, a lot of Democrats had given up on that race. I mean, if you talked to Democrats privately, their view was she’ll get into a runoff, but she will have a very difficult time winning that. And they were not counting on holding that –
MS. IFILL: Hasn’t she survived one before?
MR. BALZ: She survived before, but this is a tougher environment, as – and even tougher today than it looked like a week ago.
MR. HARWOOD: And with no stakes in it for Democrats, since they are clearly in the minority, they don’t have much incentive to put money down. But one interesting thing will be, if the Democrats walk away from that race, and she walks away and says I’m doing this on my own, does that somehow change the dynamic? I doubt it.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: But it’s at least interesting.
MS. IFILL: Let’s move on, because I want to talk about the body language of the week. The president stressed cooperation. It was kind of an oddly relaxed news conference the day after a very bad night.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) That’s not to say that we won’t disagree over some issues that we’re passionate about. We will. Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign. I’m pretty sure I’ll take some actions that some in Congress will not like. That’s natural. That’s how our democracy works. But we can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement among the American people.
MS. IFILL: He almost laughed a little bit there.
House Speaker John Boehner was more pessimistic.
SPEAKER BOEHNER: (From videotape.) Finding common ground can be hard work. But I’ll be even harder if the president isn’t willing to work with us. Yesterday we heard him say that he may double down on his go-it-alone approach. Listen, I’ve told the president before, he needs to put politics aside and rebuild trust.
MS. IFILL: The first flashpoint this week - not the last, because today we saw announcements about Iraq; we saw lots of - an attorney general nomination - but the very first one was immigration, Beth.
MS. REINHARD: Right. And, you know, the Republicans that are going to come to Washington, I think, you know, pretty much across the board, campaigned against any kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants. So, if anything, the Congress is more positioned to oppose anything the president would do than they were before the election. So I think that could get ugly.
MS. IFILL: And some Democrats are even saying the president should just step back from this because it’s not worth – what is it – there were so many metaphors this week, but one was kerosene on a fire. One was – you know, there were a lot of them.
MS. REINHARD: Nuclear threat –
MS. IFILL: Nuclear threat.
MS. REINHARD: - was the one from Reince Priebus, yeah.
MS. IFILL: There you go.
MR. BAKER: At the White House, though, they have calculated that there’s absolutely no reason not to do this. And they’re no longer using the words “threat.” They’re saying this is going to happen. It’s not a possibility. And their view is we waited before. You know, we tried to go through Congress before. Waiting to go to the next Congress isn’t going to produce a better result; might as well go ahead and do this, get it out of the way, and move on.
But they still have to be careful, because they have spending bills coming up before the end of the year. Do they wait to do this until after the spending bills are agreed to, or do they take a risk and, you know, provoke the opposition at the same time?
MS. IFILL: There is a distinction between what they have planned for this lame-duck Congress, what happens before the Republican majority takes charge, and what happens after January. But there are areas of agreement. They all sounded like they thought there might be.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, the Republicans indicated that they would be willing to help the president get a new authorization for the use of military force with respect to Iraq and Syria.
MS. IFILL: Mmm hmm.
MR. HARWOOD: There’s going to be an Ebola money request, which I would expect that that would also go through. And there’s – they’ve got to extend government funding for the rest of the year. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner say we’re not going to have any government shutdowns. And most people, I think, expect that that is going to happen.
But I think Peter raised an interesting point about timing. If the administration says they’re going to take this action on immigration before the end of the year, that could have a difficult effect on the ability to pass that thing quickly, although, from the White House point of view, there’s probably a certain liberation –
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: - in going ahead and acting and saying I’ll dare you to shut down the government to prevent me from stopping deportations of a large number of illegals on the eve of the next presidential election.
MS. IFILL: OK, here’s another thing. The Supreme Court reopened a can of worms by agreeing to take another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. So that is yet another fight waiting to happen.
MR. BALZ: Well, and the Republican leaders made it clear that they are going to take some votes on repealing the act, which we know would be vetoed if they were able to get it through, but then signaled that they’re prepared to go after individual pieces of the Affordable Care Act.
MS. IFILL: That’s the part where I thought I was hearing them say, like the medical device tax, where the White House did not rule that out completely.
MR. BALZ: There may be some things like that. But Gwen, what struck me in watching the three press conferences – first, Senator McConnell, then the president, then Speaker Boehner – was that, as they were saying what you would expect them to say the day after the election, which is we need to cooperate - we do get the message that the voters, the public wants cooperation in Congress – that they were drawing lines in a way that I don’t think they quite drew them after 2010.
And it seemed to me that we’re six years in. These three people know one another. They don’t particularly have relationships. Certainly the president and the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell, they don’t have a relationship. They were drawing lines as much as they were saying we’re going to cooperate.
MS. IFILL: Well, maybe because it’s they’re (already ?) doing the lines about what this means for the immediate future. We’re going to be watching all this, of course, the politics of the lame-duck Congress and the politics of positioning. But it’s impossible not to look at all this in the context of the politics of 2016. And that’s what I look at when I see these folks. The Republicans (can get ?) very happy about what happened Tuesday night, but they know what the map looks like for 2016.
MS. REINHARD: Right. And it’s going to be tough. Even Reince Priebus today said – acknowledged we have to be about perfect as a national party, he said, because the demographics are not on our side in presidential elections. As John mentioned, younger folks turn out. Minorities turn out. There are more women that come out, unmarried women, who tend to vote Democratic. And the electoral college just works the Democratic favor, because you have these large populous states that they’ve already banked before, you know, even campaigning starts. So it is still a heavy lift.
However, they do have hope, because they were able to win in so many of those swing states that will be crucial.
MS. IFILL: OK, so we talked about how the president went to certain states to campaign. So did Hillary Clinton. Now, there is some debate about whether, in the end, that’s good, because she has a Republican Congress to run against, or that it was bad because she didn’t help any of these people over the finish line. What’s the conventional and unconventional – give me some unconventional wisdom.
MR. BAKER: She didn’t help – (inaudible) – that she didn’t help, but she collected a lot of chits. You know, she got out there. She showed she’s willing to work for the party. She made a lot more contacts.
MS. IFILL: She collected chits –
MR. BAKER: (Inaudible.)
MS. IFILL: - from people who lost.
MR. BAKER: Well, but also some people who won. I mean, and the people who lost, frankly, still need to, you know, support somebody for president. And within their states, they’re going to be working for somebody. And the truth is, she’s rusty. She showed on her book tour that she needed time out there to get, you know, going. She’s not going to have a strong competition, it doesn’t look like, for the nomination. You know, Martin O’Malley, who wanted to run against her as governor of Maryland, he couldn’t get his own lieutenant governor elected in Maryland. So he looks even less likely as a possible –
MS. IFILL: Well, one governor who did well was Scott Walker. If he had not won reelection, he was seen to be in danger, as you mentioned, Dan.
MR. BALZ: I think there are several governors who came out of this fall in a better position than when they went in, and Scott Walker would be the first. There was a question about whether Scott Walker was going to survive to be able to think about running for president.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BALZ: And, in fact, he did. This is now the third time he has won in Wisconsin in four years. And so he has enhanced his standing.
I think Governor Christie had a very good fall. He raised a ton of money. Now, the Republican Governors Association is a money-raising machine. The chairman is only a part of that. But as chairman, he was very energetic. He went into a lot of states. He campaigned publicly for a lot of people.
MS. IFILL: He did.
MR. BALZ: So he comes out of that.
John Kasich in Ohio, who was being talked about as a possible candidate – I wouldn’t say at this point whether he will or won’t run – won with a very large margin in a swing state.
MS. REINHARD: He also won with majorities of women and young voters. He got 26 percent of the black vote. And those are all the groups that we’re saying that are going to be –
MS. IFILL: Especially in a place like Ohio.
MS. REINHARD: Right.
MS. IFILL: And then, of course, there’s Ted Cruz, who can make a lot of trouble between now and even the end of the lame-duck session if he chooses to, no matter whether Republicans are in charge of the Senate or not.
MR. HARWOOD: I would totally expect that he would choose to. On your earlier question to Peter, I’ll go with A. I think it’s better for Hillary Clinton that we now have this Republican sweep. That’s going to give a fresh amount of momentum. And also the conversations that I have about Jeb Bush have taken a slightly more positive tone among people, saying maybe he will run. I don’t know if he will. I’ve been assuming all year long that he won’t. But you get the idea that maybe in this environment he might be rising to it.
MS. IFILL: Wait for all the shakeout.
We have one more thing to get to. Some of Tuesday night’s winners immediately became the stars to watch; among them, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton – Iowa, Colorado, Arkansas, three states that represent three important new constituencies for the Republican Party. Wouldn’t you say?
MR. BALZ: Yes. I mean, Joni Ernst came out of this election as kind of a star of the Republican Party. She was undervalued early in the year, a long shot. She ran this famous ad about castrating hogs.
MR. HARWOOD: It vaulted her.
MR. BALZ: It vaulted her into public consciousness. And in the end –
MS. IFILL: And then she immediately went on her National Guard deployment the day after the election.
MR. BALZ: Yes.
MS. IFILL: You’ve got to love that.
MR. BALZ: So she will get a lot of attention when she comes to town.
MS. REINHARD: And, you know, just going back to 2016, Marco Rubio, who – the Florida senator who we think may run for president, he was in early for Joni Ernst.
MS. IFILL: That’s true.
MS. REINHARD: And, you know, speaking of collecting chits, as maybe Hillary Clinton and certainly Chris Christie did, I think Marco Rubio did.
MS. IFILL: Tom Cotton? Tom Cotton was a pretty strong candidate down in Arkansas and knocked off a household name.
MR. HARWOOD: He knocked off a household name. He’s not as charismatic as Joni Ernst is, but he’s an impressive, highly intelligent –
MS. IFILL: Blue-chip –
MR. HARWOOD: - blue-chip resume. So, yeah, I would expect that he would be a force. And I think it’s going to be interesting whether this – what is this new crop going to add up to? You know, we had a tea party revolution in 2010. We had something different this time.
MS. IFILL: On purpose. It’s like these candidates were recruited to be not tea party candidates.
MR. HARWOOD: Right. But many of them are quite conservative.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. HARWOOD: Tom Cotton is a very conservative guy. Joni Ernst is very conservative. So is Cory Gardner. But how do they evolve and how do they define themselves statewide?
MR. BAKER: Did the establishment beat the tea party, or did the tea party basically coopt the establishment? That’s the real question today. And that’s what Mitch McConnell is going to have to answer when he –
MS. IFILL: Well, Cory Gardner is a perfect example of this. I mean, he – everybody wrote about how he put a sunny face on conservative principles. But in a state like Colorado, being able to do that when you’re not getting a majority of the Hispanic vote, when it’s very, very purple and the president’s won there twice, and the Democratic governor still was able to win, he pulled off something.
MR. BALZ: I think one thing that’s different this time – in the exit polls, compared to 2010, the favorability of the tea party is down eight or 10 points. So that gives you a sense of where things are. I think the second is that there is a feeling that this is a different group. They are very conservative, as you say. It’s a very conservative group. But they have – they may have a different mission than the tea party group did.
MS. IFILL: Well, you know, there are many missions, and we’re going to be tracking them all. Thanks, everybody.
It may seem like we just scraped the surface, and we did. So stick with us as we take this conversation online in the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. Among other things, we’ll talk about how two big issues, same-sex marriage and health care, are back, thanks to the courts. That begins at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time and streams live all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And then join me next Thursday at noon for my monthly “Washington Week” Web chat. Surely you’ll have even more questions for me by then. And then we’ll see you right here next week on “Washington Week.”