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What's At Stake

Senator Mitch McConnell campaigning for reelection. If he wins, and if the GOP gains control of the Senate, McConnell likely will be Senate majority leader.
Senator Mitch McConnell campaigning for reelection. If he wins, and if the GOP gains control of the Senate, McConnell likely will be Senate majority leader.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s easy to conclude that the 2014 midterm elections aren’t about anything much.

Attacks ads continue to be the preferred way to campaign for office, and most of the candidates seem to be skirting the issues.

Republicans have excoriated Obamacare since its passage, but most GOP candidates have stopped talking about the law, even in red states. Immigration, always a hot-button issue, does not appear to have legs this time around, though that could change if the Obama administration issues sweeping new regulations deferring deportations and providing green cards for high-tech workers and relatives of American citizens and permanent residents.

Yet much is at stake in the 2014 midterms, even if it’s not apparent from the rhetoric on the stump, because if the GOP wins control of both houses of Congress it will use its power to impose on the nation the right-wing agenda of the Koch brothers and their allies.

The dynamics of the election point to a Republican victory. Turnout in midterm elections favors Republicans, just as turnout in presidential elections favors Democrats. History indicates that the president’s party loses seats in Congress in midterms, especially in a president’s second term. Democrats may lose even more seats than usual, given Barack Obama’s current unpopularity.

Democrats have little or no chance of regaining control of the House; the major battleground is the Senate, where the numbers are on the GOP’s side. Democrats control 21 of the 36 contested seats this year; Republicans hold only 15, so the GOP has many more opportunities to pick up seats than Democrats do. To make matters worse for the Democrats, several of their incumbents are up for reelection in red states where Obama is very unpopular and which voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

A Republican-controlled Senate likely would elevate Mitch McConnell to majority leader. Likely, but not assured, since McConnell is locked in a tough reelection race with Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. The battle currently is rated a toss up.

If McConnell wins reelection, he may face opposition in his own caucus, assuming the GOP has a Senate majority. Bomb-throwing Senator Ted Cruz of Texas refuses to commit to vote for McConnell. “That will be a decision for the conference to make,” Cruz says.

McConnell has indicated — if he becomes majority leader — he will use the threat of a government shutdown to undo everything President Obama has accomplished so far. Perhaps he hopes such hardline threats will boost his reelection prospects in Kentucky and then win him conservative converts in the GOP caucus.

In public — in an interview in Politico — and in private — at a strategy conference for conservative billionaires hosted by the Koch brothers — McConnell has outlined his plans to pass spending bills that “have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy.”

“So in the House and Senate, we own the budget,” McConnell told the super wealthy. “So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board (inaudible). All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

“Going after them on healthcare, on financial services” means declawing the Affordable Care Act by placing legislative restrictions on it and eviscerating Dodd-Frank, a key measure for regulating banks by protecting consumers. McConnell’s legislation — the “riders” in the budget bill — would either limit the administration’s effectiveness or force the president to veto the budget bill, risking a government shutdown.

Other than passing a budget bill with riders, don’t expect a McConnell-led Senate to take bold steps. “And we’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals,” he promised the secret June gathering organized by the Kochs. “That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage (inaudible) — cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment — that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse, uh. These people believe in all the wrong things.”

Senator No knows he has to act fast to rein in legislation he and his ultra-conservative wealthy backers don’t like. Republicans are likely to lose the Senate in 2016, because the map flips from favoring Republicans this year to giving Democrats a big advantage in two years, when Democrats will be defending only 10 seats to 24 for the GOP. And 2016 is a presidential election, when turnout and demography favor Democrats.

McConnell likely will be majority leader for only two years — if at all — so he has to act fast to do as much damage as possible.

Preventing McConnell from doing that damage is what’s at stake in the midterms.