The special election to fill the seat of the late senator Frank Lautenberg ended without much drama as Newark mayor Cory Booker (D) easily defeated Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan (R) by a margin of 55% to 44%, just as the polls predicted. Booker will be New Jersey's first black senator, but the ninth black person to sit in the Senate. When Booker is seated, it will raise the number of blacks in the Senate to two, the other being Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who was appointed by the governor of South Carolina to fill out the term of Jim DeMint, who resigned from the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation. Some pundits are already talking about Booker as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2016, but that seems awfully premature.
Noteworthy here is the date of the special election, Oct. 16. The special election for the Senate seat could easily have been set to coincide with the gubernatorial election in three weeks, thus saving the state of New Jersey the tens of millions of dollars it cost to run a separate special election. The primary advantage of a separate election--as viewed from the governor's mansion--is that combining the two elections would have greatly increased minority turnout at the polls for the gubernatorial election and thus reduced the margin of victory for Gov. Chris Christie's expected reelection. For Christie, a likely 2016 presidential contender, spending $24 million of the taxpayer's money to hold two elections within a three-week time span is a small price to pay to make him look better in 2016.
Yesterday evening the Senate passed a bill to reopen the government, raise the debt limit, and kick the can down the road for three months. The vote was 81 to 18, with all the Senate Democrats and over half the Senate Republicans voting for it. The bill then went to the House where it passed 285 to 144, with all the Democrats supporting it but a majority of Republicans voting nay. President Obama stayed up late to watch the action and signed the bill in the wee hours of this morning.
Although President Obama got essentially everything he wanted and the House Republicans who wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act got almost nothing (except a promise to make sure that people who get subsidies actually qualify for them), the deal negotiated by Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell solves nothing. The differences between the parties are still there and will come up again in January. Part of the arrangement is to set up a Senate-House conference committee to look at broader budget issues such as entitlement spending. Given that the Republicans want to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare and not raise taxes and the Democrats are willing to cut Social Security and Medicare only if there are new tax revenues, the joint committee has its work cut out for it. It is very likely that threats and brinksmanship will reemerge in January when government funding runs out again or in February when the debt ceiling is again reached.
A complicating factor now and early next year is that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) enjoys the perks that come with the job and is loathe to give them up. To keep his job, he must placate the 144 members of his party who voted against the Senate bill yesterday. But doing what they want is unacceptable to the Democrats, who control 200 seats in the House. A lot thus depends on what the more than 80 moderate Republicans who voted with the Democrats yesterday want, but they are not organized and do not speak with a single voice. If they did, they could work with the Democrats and run the show.
Boehner will almost certainly keep his job, in large part because nobody else wants it. The Constitution says the Speaker is elected by the entire House--not just the majority party. Thus anyone who has visions of replacing Boehner somehow has to convince 218 Republicans to support him (because he won't get any Democratic votes). Given how fractured the Republican caucus is right now, that is a very tall order.
The government shutdown and near default has greatly tarnished the image of the Republican party, something Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) warned about from the very beginning of the crisis. A recent NBC-WSJ poll puts the approval rate of the Republican Party at 24%, the lowest any party has ever registered in the history of polling. Many tea party members in the House don't care, however, since they are personally in safe districts due to the gerrymandering that occurred after the Republicans swept the state legislatures in 2010. In 2020, which is a presidential election year, the Democrats are likely to sweep the state legislatures and do the gerrymandering next time, but the 2022 elections are too far out for current House members to think about.
Politically, an unanswered question is how the shutdown will affect the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential election. A poll asking people if they support a generic Democrat or a generic Republican for Congress next year gives the Democrats a lead of 47% to 39%, which would be enough to flip the House to Democratic control next year. However, (1) the average voter has the memory of a flea, so all this will be forgotten in a year and the crisis du jour will dominate next year's elections, and (2) neither party runs generic candidates; the personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and advertising budgets of the actual candidates matter. All that said, using Custer's last stand as the model of how run your party probably isn't going to help the Republicans much next year. Of course, when the same battles come up in January and February of next year, how they play out will make most people forget this year's skirmishes--unless the House Republicans again shut down the government or threaten a default on the debt again.
Another bit of political fallout is how the deal will affect the reelection race of minority leader McConnell, who is facing a tea party candidate, Matt Bevin, in what threatens to be a nasty ideological primary. Bevin's main complaint about McConnell is that he is a dealmaker who compromises rather than just saying no. McConnell's deal with Harry Reid just gives Bevin more ammo. Conservatives have already started making this point. So far, polls show McConnell ahead of Bevin, but this could be a game changer. The whole mess could end up helping the Democrats since their best outcome is that a broke and bloodied McConnell limps out the primary as the winner. Still, Kentucky is a deep red state so it is more likely than not that the Republicans will hold this seat.
Yet another point to think about is that many conservatives don't blame the Democrats for the fact that that got nothing out of this deal. Instead they blame the moderate Republicans and are likely to primary some of them. History shows that when tea party favorites win Republican primaries in states or districts that are heavily Republican, they go on to win the general election. However, when they win in swing states or districts, the Democrats end up winning the general election. Almost by definition, the moderate Republicans represent swing districts and challenges to them from the right can only help the Democrats.
Further down the road is how the crisis will affect the 2016 elections. Sen. Ted Cruz led the fight on the Republican side, which gave him a massive amount of publicity. It also drove his personal approval rating down to 14%. The good news is that 44% of the NBC-WSJ poll respondents still don't know who he is or have an opinion of him. However, these low-information voters generally don't vote in Republican primaries, and Cruz is a hero to the far-right tea party members who dominate the Republican primaries, so nobody really knows whether this whole affair will help or hurt Cruz in 2016.
On the other side, it looks increasingly like Hillary Clinton is going to try to grab the brass ring. She is currently spending all her time accepting awards. She has received awards for combating AIDS, saving children, and other things. Getting all these awards is nominally nonpolitical but keeps her in the news and raises her approval ratings by showing how wonderful she is in a way that makes it hard for Republicans to criticize her. If she spends the next year on the awards circuit, she gets positive publicity while officially saying she hasn't made up her mind about a run yet. Since she is so well known and so well connected, she can easily wait until 2015 to make a formal announcement. It is likely she will decide soon after the 2014 elections to either clear the field of potential opponents or, in the event she decides not to run, to give other Democrats time to prepare for the race.