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Republicans caught a big, angry wave that swamped Democrats

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared Tuesday’s national vote a “wave election” where Republican victories were not isolated events but part of a large, sweeping tide. Matthews picked the right metaphor; like a big wave, this latest expression of electoral unease was all brute force.

Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate surfed the wave successfully while many Democrats got swamped. That had a great deal to do with the nature of the wave, propelled as it was by older white voters in more conservative states. These were the same states that had elected Democratic senators six years ago when a different wave, driven by young, ethnically diverse voters, lifted Barack Obama into the White House.

Election results are never precise statements of support for particular policies and philosophies of government. They are unfocused manifestations of a collective gut feeling. Now and then, hope and optimism drive the vote, but, far more often, it is an expression of a general unease with the state of the nation. When that unease gets focused on an individual leader, as it did this year with the president, the opposition party invariably benefits.

That is why Republicans dare not assume their victories are portents of triumphs to come. The conditions were right for them to do well this year. There were plenty of endangered Democratic incumbents to pick off and, this being a lower-turnout midterm election, there were fewer young people and minorities showing up at the polls. In two years, those factors will be reversed.

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Still, Democrats should not lull themselves into thinking the worst is over. Republicans ran well in places where, even in non-presidential election years, Democrats should be able to win. Democrats lost races for governor in the blue states of Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. They lost squeakers in Wisconsin, Maine and Florida. In Georgia, even the grandson of Jimmy Carter failed to knock off an unpopular, ethically challenged GOP incumbent. And in true-blue Vermont, the Democratic governor fell short of 50% of the vote, sending the final choice to the state Legislature.

There was good news for Democrats in Pennsylvania, where newcomer Tom Wolf convincingly drubbed incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown won a historic fourth term without breaking a sweat. If Brown were a young man, he’d be at the top of the list of Democratic presidential prospects. But he is 76 years old and at the climax of his career.

And that illuminates the biggest weakness of the Democratic Party going toward 2016. The most likely Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton, who will be 69 when the next election rolls around. These days, that is not necessarily old, but the Clinton brand is hardly fresh and new. If Democratic success is reliant on the kind of young, fickle voters who swarmed to Obama in 2008 because he was a youthful, mixed-race guy with an aura of cool and a celebrity-driven campaign, will they show up to vote for someone who already inhabited the White House when they were in grade school?

And if not Hillary, then who would the candidate be? Is the top alternative really Vice President Joe Biden, who will be nearly 75 when the nation votes again? Joe Biden, who is the butt of jokes on “The Daily Show” and Colbert and “Saturday Night Live”?

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Among the Republican politicians lining up for the presidential race, there are right-wing zealots like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum who would go down in flames and take their party with them. But there are also some relatively young and intriguing new faces, such as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, who could reshape the GOP brand. Meanwhile, the Democratic bench is packed with too many veterans of past campaigns.

Older Democrats may pine for the return of Hillary and Bill, but for voters under 40 the Clintons are figures from history. When the next political tide rolls in, Democrats may wish they had someone better positioned to catch the new wave.


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