The Most Important Midterm Elections in American History: #1 – Illinois Senate Election, 1858

October 17, 2014

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Illinois Senate Election of 1858 – the first midterm election to really be remembered – tops the list. However, it wasn’t the famous debates that put the Lincoln-Douglas election at the top; the candidates and the result did that.

At the time Stephen Douglas ran for his third term as U.S. Senator, he was already one of the most well-known politicians in America. Infamous for his role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and just as well known for his recent (in 1858) opposition to the pro-slavery regime in Kansas itself, Douglas had already vied for the Democrats’ nomination for president twice, and was widely perceived to be the front-runner for the nod in 1860…but only if he could get re-elected.

On the Republican side, Lincoln was known to Midwest party leaders, Illinoisans, and no one else. Eastern Republicans were so thrilled at the defeat of the pro-slavery-Kansas “Lecompton Constitution” (which was defeated with Douglas’ help) that some wondered if it was worth opposing Douglas at all. Yet where outsiders saw strength, Lincoln saw weakness, and hit Douglas’ let-the-territories-do-what-they-want position on slavery (known as “popular sovereignty”) with both barrels.

The result was a contest between a polarizing yet moderate Democrat and a principled yet coalition-building Republican. Douglas’ position in his party all-but-ensured his re-election campaign would catch national attention. Lincoln’s performance as a candidate ensured his name would be remembered with the Democrat.

That said, the result itself had ramifications that flowed into the 1860 election and well beyond.

Of course, as well know (and were taught), Lincoln’s ability to essentially tie Douglas in the votes for the legislature that would choose a Senator (the Democrats had an overwhelming advantage in holdover seats, which enabled Douglas to win) made him a national figure…and it revealed to the Republicans a Midwestern alternative to the polarizing figures of William Henry Seward and Salmon Chase. It goes without saying how important that would become when the Republicans chose their nominee in 1860. Without a strong Lincoln performance, there’s no guarantee the Republicans even win at all in 1860.

However, the fact that Douglas won might even be more important. His victory validated his political position not just for himself, but for hundreds of northern Democrats holding elected offices. The fact that President Buchanan even tried to build an anti-Douglas Democrat ticket in 1858 (it was trounced in Illinois) was icing on the cake. Had Douglas lost, a whole slew of northern Democrats would have decided that playing the middle of the road on slavery was pointless, and that it would be better to toe the increasingly strident line of the southern Democrats. With Douglas shunted into premature retirement, its quite possible that Democrats would have united behind Vice President Breckinridge, making 1860 look very, very different.

How different? Well, for starters, about 10 electoral votes Lincoln did get thanks to the Douglas-Breckenridge division (different regions of the Democrats would nominate each one) would have vanished, and the “lower north” (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) would have been much more competitive. Even if Lincoln had won the electoral votes he needed in 1860 (and I think that’s still likely), it is just as likely he would have been a minority president. How much would the North have been willing to fight the Civil War if Lincoln had come in second in the popular vote? Given that the only previous example at the time was John Adams and 1824, the matter of legitimacy could have been front and center that year.

Instead, Douglas won, ensuring his faction would have enough strength to block any southern choice for the Democrats’ nominee. This led to the split amongst the Democrats that made Lincoln a plurality president (and eliminated any Jackson-Adams rehash). That split would also allow many northern Democrats to follow Douglas (albeit in spirit after his death in June 1861) in supporting Lincoln’s war effort. As bizarre as it might sound, Lincoln needed Stephen Douglas in Washington in 1860 – and arguably, so did the rest of us.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

The Most Important Midterm Elections in American History: #2 – Virginia US Senate election, 2006

October 16, 2014

Midterm elections that have a dramatic impact in American History are rare, and it should be no surprise that a majority of them (including #1) are from the very tumultuous 1850s. However, the 21st Century does have one that scrambled both political parties at once – and it happened be right here in Virginia: the Allen-Webb race of 2006.

The importance of the race in the moment was well known: as the last winner to be declared that year, Jim Webb provide the Democrats with the 51st vote they needed to control the U.S. Senate; they haven’t relinquished it since. Still, that would not be enough to make this list – let alone nearly top it.

What makes Webb’s victory over Allen so important was the effect on the 2008 presidential election…and beyond.

We’ll start with the winner. Webb’s victory (and the Democrats’ subsequent Senate majority) shifted the political center of gravity both in Washington and within the Democrats themselves. They became bolder, more willing to take a risk and swing for the fences. That led them to be far more dovish on the liberation of Iraq than they might have been with just the House, and it led them away from Hillary Clinton and toward Barack Obama. A Republican-controlled Senate, by contrast, would have made Democrats more cautious – and even a little more would have been enough to reverse the outcome of the nomination contest. We will never know how much differently things would have turned out with Hillary Clinton as the nominee (divisions within the Democrats; a potential Clinton-Obama ticket, etc.), but clearly, recent history would be very different.

Strangely enough, this may even be more true on the Republican side. Before Allen lost, he was considered a leading presidential candidate – and the most likely choice of the Republican leadership. His defeat sent the “establishment primary” into complete chaos; one could even argue that the establishment remained divided on its choice until the rest of the party chose John McCain for them. Moreover, given that Allen had very good ties to the conservative wing of the party in 2006, he was likely to be nominated.

Thus, instead of a McCain-Obama race, we likely would have Allen-Clinton instead, which would have meant dramatic departures from the current narrative. If Allen had lost, no one in the party would be safe from taking responsibility for it. Much of the arguments within the Republican Party are fueled in part by the assumption of many conservatives and insurgents that the moderates “had their chance” with McCain and Romney. Leaving aside the wisdom of that assumption, it could not survive an Allen defeat.

This, of course, assumes Allen would have lost to Clinton. If he hadn’t…

Thus did the Allen-Webb race of 2006 become one of only two midterm elections that had immediate impact in both parties’ presidential nominations. That puts it on this list, and the fact that the election impacted was 2008 (the first African-American president elected) rather than 1856 moves this election to number 2…

…but not number 1.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

Remember Tax Cuts? They’re Baaaaaaaack.

October 3, 2014

Everyone in politics knows about that guy (or gal), the one who keeps banging on about taxes: they should never be raised; they should be cut at the first opportunity; government spending cuts can always be found in the budget; tax cuts are political winners; tax increases drive away voters like the plague; tax increases never bring in the revenue their supposed to raise anyway; tax increases discourage spending cuts, etc.

Of course, I am that guy. So I couldn’t help but notice that while Republicans in Washington are increasingly skittish about proposing tax reductions (the state capitals are another story), center-right politicians in the rest of the Anglosphere are grabbing them with both hands – and reaping the rewards.

Just last month, in New Zealand, National Prime Minister John Key asked voters for a third term with “promised tax cuts” while his Labour opponents proposed a new capital gains tax (Bloomberg via Sun-Sentinel). The result: the highest popular vote level for the National Party in over 60 years, and (pending special ballots) the Holy Grail of politics – an absolute majority in a proportional-representation election (Economist).

Meanwhile, just this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron launched the (unusually long due to fixed election dates) 2015 campaign with a promise of two separate income tax cuts. Less than two days later, YouGov (one of many pollsters in the UK) reported that Cameron’s Tories took their first lead in its poll in over two and a half years (Telegraph).

Finally, even our neighbor to the north is getting in the act: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is moving up his planned tax reductions by about six months (National Post).

Granted, in each of these nations, the center-right is actually in power, and thus have been better able to keep spending in check (at least since 2010). Still, it is yet another reminder in this era of near-record mistrust of government effectiveness (and not just here in the US), letting the people spend their own money is a powerful way to rebuild trust and support.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

What has the Democrats most upset at their party? Not social issues…

September 23, 2014

The Pew Research Center has a new poll out on how self-described Democrats and Republicans view their own parties on abortion, immigration, marriage, and spending. Most are focusing on the top line: namely, that we Republicans are more upset at our party than the Dems – across the board.

However, Pew did a little more digging about why Democrats and Republicans are upset at their parties (those who are). By far, the greatest source of frustration among Republicans is government spending: 48% think the party electeds don’t do enough to cut spending.

Now, here’s the kicker: the Democrats’ biggest source of frustration is the same thing. Thirty percent of Democrats think their elected officials don’t do enough to cut spending either.

In other words, the best shot the GOP has at winning over Democrats isn’t any social issue. It’s cutting government spending, the very thing that would most make upset Republicans happy.

The data speaks loud and clear. Let’s hope the GOP leadership is listening.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon

Bob McDonnell is a WHAT?!?!?!

September 5, 2014

Reactions to the Bob McDonnell verdict our pouring in, and there’s one in particular (from many of his defenders) that I find completely flabbergasting.

The ex-Governor’s defenders are calling him a “man of integrity.” My jaw hits the table each time I see that.

Folks, Bob McDonnell spent all of 2009 insisting he would not raise taxes. He blasted his opponent (Creigh Deeds) for even considering it, and rode the issue to a landslide win in November of that year.

In the last year of his term (as it happens, last year) he broke that promise in spectacular fashion, ramming through the largest tax increase in at least 40 years.

Even then, he skirted the truth. He insisted the tax hike was for relieving commuter congestion, but in fact his top priority was actually a parallel road to US 460 that wasn’t needed for traffic relief – and which the Army Corps of Engineers said he couldn’t build anyway (Bacon’s Rebellion).

So please, spare me the “man of integrity” nonsense. If you want to complain about the federal decision to prosecute McDonnell (as opposed to other Virginians) or the bizarre nature of the “honest service fraud” statute, that’s one thing.

But Bob McDonnell was no angel.

Dear Virginia Senate Republican Majority: Don’t mess it up again with another tax hike

August 20, 2014

With Ben Chafin’s election, it is now official. After seven months, the Republicans have a majority in the Virginia Senate once more. As one would expect, a number of my friends are crowing.

Unfortunately for me, recent political history is screaming in my ears. It makes my optimism about a fully Republican-controlled Virginia legislature extremely cautious.

For those unaware, the Republican Party first had a State Senate “majority” in 1998 (although the 21st vote was actually the Lieutenant Governor); they held it for ten years. This is the record of that decade…

  • Holding up budget amendments in an attempt to reverse the progress of the Gilmore car-tax cut (2001)
  • A referendum in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia for tax increases (2002 – thankfully rejected by the voters)
  • A proposed tax increase that was twice what Mark Warner wanted (2004)
  • A proposed gas tax increase (2006)
  • A proposed statewide tax increase in response to the HB3202 debacle (2007)
  • Enacting HB3202 anyway (2007)

Somehow, the party was shocked – shocked! – when voters showed them the door and returned the State Senate to the Democrats in November 2007 (on a night when those without a tax-stained record did quite well, thank you very much).

Four years later, after Governor Bob McDonnell won a landslide victory by promising not to raise taxes, the GOP managed another 20-20 split. Once again, the Lieutenant Governor give them control…and within a fifteen months, the Republican-controlled State Senate passed a McDonnell-proposed tax hike (known in this corner as Plan ’13 From Outer Space). The nominee to replace McDonnell – Ken Cuccinelli – tried to defend and oppose it at the same time.

Somehow, the party was shocked – shocked! – when voters showed the 2013 GOP ticket the door, which also put the State Senate back into the hands of the Democrats in January.

Now, Republicans have the 21st vote once more.

I sincerely hope that the party has learned its lesson…and not f*ck it up with yet another tax hike that reminds the voters why  they took power away from it, repeatedly.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon

Memo to Chris Christie: We are watching the Shaneen Allen case…and you

August 11, 2014

As a native of New Jersey, I can say without reservation that its bizarre allergy to gun rights was one of the chief reasons I left. Radley Balko (Washington Post) has the details on the latest ridiculous example: Shaneen Allen, who brought her Pennsylvania-permitted gun into the Garden State, told authorities of it when pulled over for a traffic violation…and faces over 3 years in jail because New Jersey doesn’t give a damn what its fellow states think about gun permits.

As Balko notes, New Jersey – and its Governor, Chris Christie – have been down this road before with Brian Aitken, who was also prsecuted (that typo is a deliberate, a way to merge prosecuted and persecuted into one word) for this. The Governor commuted Aitken’s sentence. He has not acted at all on Allen, whose case has not yet come to trial.

For those interested, Aitken is white, and Allen is black…and Balko lays out a detailed and compelling case for why that makes a thoroughly unwarranted difference in these matters (WaPo again). Of course, gun control has been fueled by overt racism from the 1860s to the 1960s (and I’m doubting it really stopped there, what with Armed While Black still being a de facto crime as Balko details).

Meanwhile, Governor Christie is eyeing the presidential race…and should know that folks who care about gun rights are more than a little skeptical of him. He can go a long way toward alleviating those concerns – or reinforcing them to the point of keeping himself out of the White House – depending upon how he treats Shaneen Allen.

Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon


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