Republicans and Democrats face challenges in upcoming elections

Ryan Shay

After resounding defeats in 2008 and 2012, the national Republican Party remains desperate to retake the White House. While commanding majorities in both houses of Congress, elected Republicans, time and again, have been undermined by their own far-right members who are animated by their parochial constituencies who are increasingly hostile to the machinations of governing. On the other hand, the national Democratic Party, despite electoral and demographic strengths, find their 2016 fortunes largely tethered to the performance of their prospective nominee, Hillary Clinton. Additionally, Democrats find their long-term political goals undermined by drastic losses in state legislatures and governorships since 2009. 

On paper, the national Republican Party holds coveted institutional advantages: majorities in the House and Senate, 33 governorships and commanding control in state legislatures. However, the national party cannot seem to translate their institutional leverage into legislative success, largely as a result of the increasingly strained relationship between party leadership, rank-and-file conservatives and the party faithful. 

According to John Johannes, political science professor at Villanova University, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are “so worried about their right-wings that they’re afraid to anything that would require bipartisanship.” Speaker Boehner–who has struggled to corral his far-right caucus since his election as speaker in 2011–nearly lost reelection as speaker in early January as he faced the largest party rebellion against its incumbent speaker since the Civil War. 

Exemplified in 2011’s debt ceiling debacle, 2012/2013’s fiscal cliff crisis and 2014’s inability to balance outrage at President Obama’s executive action with funding the Department of Homeland Security, Boehner’s legislative goals have been undermined by rebellious actions of members of the far right. One contributing cause to the mutinous antics of far-right members–according to Matthew Kerbel, political science department chair at Villanova University–is the lack of district competition. Without competition in their general elections, Republican Congressmen only have to worry about “a challenge from their right in a primary, so they risk nothing by moving further and further to the right,” Kerbel said. As a result, House Republicans survive by satisficing extremely conservatives districts and have “no need compromise, no need to bend,” Johannes said. Despite holding a 245-188 House majority, Speaker Boehner time and again does not have the votes to compromise with Democrats on major legislation and is dependent on Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for must-pass legislation (Debt Ceiling, Fiscal Cliff, Omnibus bills, DHS, etc). Time and again, Speaker Boehner finds himself stuck between avoiding a conservative revolt and passing a robust yet nationally acceptable conservative vision. 

Thus, to Kerbel and Johannes, the Republican Party is “stuck.”  Despite its institutional advantages, it does not have “the ability to square what their base wants with what a broader national electorate wants” Kerbel said. In this way, the party is stuck by appealing to its parochial voters, which precludes the flexibility to compromise and appear as a reasonable party that doesn’t shut down the government. 

Despite heavy losses in the midterm elections, national Democrats find solace in their growing strength with the emerging electorate that propelled Barack Obama to two decisive presidential election victories: Hispanics, single women and younger voters. However, Democrats face a series of uphill political challenges: in the minority in both Congressional houses and dismal strength in state legislatures and governorships. Additionally, their strength with the emerging electorate has come at the cost of white voters who disproportionately vote in congressional midterms. As a result, since President Obama’s 2008 election, the midterms of 2010 and 2014 have dealt considerable losses to national Democrats, despite electing Barack Obama to the White House with 365-173 and 332-206 electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, respectively. 

While in the minority, elected Congressional Democrats and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wields considerable influence. Just two weeks ago, Boehner relied on all 182 House Democrats to pass his preferred “clean” funding for DHS after Republicans embarrassingly scuttled his previous 30-day temporary extension the previous week. Contrasted to the divisions of the GOP majorities, the unity of Congressional Democrats is particularly striking, given their strong support for President Obama and the loss of more conservative members in 2010 and 2014. 

Looking to 2016, Democrats command a strong position in the Electoral College with 243 votes (270 needed) considered “safe.” Flipping the old adage of “Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line,” national Democrats seem to be falling behind former First Lady and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. 

Without a credible challenge, the primary is Clinton’s to lose. However, “Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ strength and weakness,” Kerbel said, pointing to Clinton’s long public history and past blunders. Despite the double-edged sword nature of his candidacy, with Congressional Republicans behaving in a way that doesn’t demonstrate they can govern.

 “If Hillary Clinton runs, I think she’s going to win,” Johannes said.