Election Day was a bad day for Democrats in Montana and across the nation.
Much like it was like for Republicans in 2006 and 2008.
“Democrats were dispirited across the country and here in Montana,” Montana State University political science professor David Parker said. “There was lower voter turnout, and the folks who Democrats needed to turn out didn’t.”
As the polls closed on the East Coast on Tuesday and results began rolling in, it was clear early in the evening that a red tidal wave was making its way west, likely to crash over Montana as it did much of the rest of the country.
The early signals of a higher-than-expected voter turnout Democratic operatives crowed about online and in social media in the days leading up to the election didn’t materialize.
Voter turnout was 54.6 percent, less than it was for the 2006 midterm election that saw Democrat Jon Tester narrowly defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.
And if there’s one thing Democrats need to win, it’s high voter turnout.
“The information environment is a heck of a lot lower in a midterm election than a presidential election,” Parker said. “Because there is less information, a lot of the voters Democrats rely on — the less educated, lower income, people with less free time — are not able to deal with a less information-dense environment.”
When the waters settled and the new political landscape took shape, Republicans nationally won 23 of the 36 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs, including Montana’s, to give the GOP a 52-seat majority and solid control of Congress.
Republicans also widened their lead in the U.S. House, strengthening their grip on that chamber with up to 250 seats, depending on the outcome of a few close races.
The carnage for Democrats wasn’t contained to Capitol Hill, however.
Across the country, Republicans picked up seats in state legislatures — now controlling 70 percent of state legislative bodies — and now control at least 31 governorships (two races are still undecided).
In Montana, Democrats — who faced large GOP majorities in the state House and Senate going into Tuesday’s election — managed to pick up a couple of seats in the House. They remain a 29-21 minority in the Senate added to seats in the House for a 59-41 minority in that body.
Though they still control the governor’s office, Democrats will find it difficult to move their party’s agenda forward in the 2015 Legislature. Republicans won’t be eager to hand Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock or his party many policy victories in advance of the 2016 election cycle.
Not since the 1928 presidential election have Democrats across the country suffered such massive defeats.
It was a stark electoral contrast to just a few short elections ago, when Democrats in Montana and across the nation beat back Republican majorities in statehouses and in Washington, D.C., and made gains in traditionally red Western states such as Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
In 2006 and 2008, the country was tired of the policies of Republican President George W. Bush and 12 years of Republican control of Congress. Voters were growing weary of the war in Iraq, warrantless spying on Americans and the Patriot Act, and they took out those frustrations on the president’s party at the polls.
Back then Democrats ran on a clear message — much of it focused on opposing Bush and Republicans in Congress — and they were rewarded with majorities.
In 2006, the first election after Gov. Brian Schweitzer ended the Democrats’ 16-year drought in the governor’s office, the party held their own in the Montana statehouse.
Democrats battled to a near tie in the House. Rick Jore, a Constitution Party candidate from Ronan, caucused with Republicans for a 51-49 majority in that body.
But in the Senate, Democrats maintained their control for the second election in a row, holding a narrow 26-24 majority.
In 2006, Montana Democrats’ standard-bearer, Tester, ran a Senate campaign that called for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Tester said he didn’t want to weaken the Patriot Act, he wanted to repeal it. He called for raising the minimum wage, ending the “irresponsible” Bush-era tax cuts and forcing the federal government to negotiate Medicare prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Tester also touted renewable energy such as biofuels, wind and solar and publicly supported American involvement in the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce global warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Tester found electoral success with those progressive messages, and so did his party.
In 2008, Democrats across the nation campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, ending the Bush tax cuts, repealing the Patriot Act, and implementing cap-and-trade greenhouse gas legislation. The national party platform called for affordable health care for all, closing the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, immigration reform, cutting military spending, reducing oil consumption and investing in renewable energy.
The year Barack Obama won the Democratic Party’s nomination and eventually the presidency, Montana Democrats picked up a seat in the House, bringing that body to a 50-50 tie. With Schweitzer’s easy re-election that year the Democrats controlled the governor’s office, which also gave them control of the tied House.
While Democrats slightly slid backward in Legislative seats in 2008 — ceding three seats to Republicans in the Senate — they strengthened their grip on statewide offices, winning all five statewide elected Land Board seats, and Democrat Max Baucus cruised to an effortless re-election in the U.S. Senate.
So what happened to Democrats’ fortunes in 2014?
Some liberal critics say the Democrats didn’t give their base a reason to show up.
Despite ruling majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama and the Democrats failed to deliver on key promises: from immigration reform to universal health care to closing down Guantanamo Bay to capping greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats made little effort to overturn the Patriot Act, curb NSA spying, reduce military spending or roll back tax cuts for the rich.
Charles Lipson, a director of the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security at the University of Chicago, told the Washington Times the day after the election that Obama lost the party base “because he overpromised and underperformed.”
“There’s a lot to be disappointed with,” Lipson said.
In Montana, where election results have bucked national trends in the past, Tuesday’s results showed that our politics have become nationalized.
“National trends are affecting Montana more and more,” Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson said. “It’s more challenging in this environment to run away from your party.”
Some critics say it’s difficult to know what Democrats stand for when their campaigns blur the line between solidly Democratic principles and Republican principles on issues ranging from global warming and the environment to guns and taxes.
Whereas Republicans have embraced their tea party base on the right, Democrats have shunned the left, wrote liberal activist William Rivers Pitt on Truth-Out.org.
“Say what you will about the Republicans, but you cannot fault their tactics when it comes to winning,” Pitt wrote in an open letter to “Democratic Spammers” in early October. “They are a minority in the United States, by the numbers, but they are running the show both politically and economically, and for one reason: they fire up their base.”
Longtime liberal columnist and former environmental lobbyist George Ochenski has been an ardent critic of Montana Democrats’ approach to governing over the 10 years, particularly as it pertains to the “all of the above” energy policies that ignore the threat of global climate change.
“Keystone XL pipeline? They all support it. Mining more coal to ship to China? You bet. Cutting down more forests that actually take carbon dioxide out of the air? Oh yeah, let’s congressionally mandate even higher harvest levels. And of course more drilling and fracking garners universal applause from Republicans and Democrats,” Ochenski lamented in a column that appeared in the Missoulian the day before the election.
Some say Democrats also failed to articulate what they stand for. In 2006 and 2008 the line between Democrats and Republicans was clear on issues ranging from war, to the environment, to the economy and jobs.
“What is the Democratic economic platform for guaranteeing a chance at prosperity for everyone? Voters can’t articulate it. In the absence of that, you vote for change,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said in an interview with the Washington Post the day after the election.
Republicans face a challenge over the next two years both in Montana and nationally: They have decisive majorities in the legislative branch, but they don’t control the executive.
Simply opposing Obama on the national level, or obstructing every policy goal Bullock promotes here in Montana, may not be a successful strategy for Republican looking ahead to 2016, Johnson said.
“We have sort of gotten into this dysfunctional dynamic where it’s hard to have much getting done,” Johnson said. “The Republicans didn’t really run on a mandate for their own policies, it was largely running against the policies of Obama.”
Johnson said Republicans risk facing a backlash from voters in 2016 if they don’t offer substantive policy solutions to the problems facing Americans and Montanans. Johnson said many of the candidates who ran for office nationally, and in Montana, ran on promises to oppose the policies of the administration and not be conciliatory with Democrats.
“People don’t think about that when casting their ballots, but that is the net effect of all this: More dysfunction, not getting things done. Both in Montana and nationwide.” Johnson said.
If the next two years resemble the past two years — full of gridlock, acrimony and stalemate — it could hurt the ruling party come 2016.
Johnson said the electorate is likely to look more favorable for Bullock and the Democrats in two years during a presidential cycle, where the information environment is richer and more likely to attract the Democratic base. And with Obama no longer on the ballot, Republicans will have to come up with a more clearly defined message in 2016 than they did in 2014.
“My guess is 2016 will end up being a lot better for Democrats than it is today,” Johnson said.