You don’t mean a thing if your state’s not a swing, goes the saying in American elections. But if it is a swing, then a whirlwind of money, consultants and campaigners will be sent your way. Alaska has been invaded these last few weeks; armies of activists sent to knock on doors in what looks to be a failed attempt to keep control of the senate. Across the nation, victory went to the Republicans, but with a hitch: their victory depended on Barack Obama.
The president’s approval ratings are now down to those last seen by George W Bush. The Republicans won by denouncing Obama, and turning the mid-term elections into a referendum on his presidency. As well as the usual domestic issues, Obama has been blamed for mismanaging the Ebola outbreak and the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Different Republicans have blamed Obama for different reasons, but voters seemed to agree: the President and his party have blown it. Obama has become the conservative’s greatest weapon.
In Alaska, the Obama effect was everywhere. The Democratic senator, Mark Begich, has been pleading with Alaskans to remember that they’d be electing him for six years, whereas Obama would be gone within two. The Democratic activists I joined on the campaign trail found themselves having to assure voters that Begich does not agree on much with the president — he thinks that his healthcare reforms are broken and that his education policies are unaffordable. Alaskans worry about the resurgent Russia too, and blame Obama for not doing more to discourage Vladimir Putin.
To their delight, the Republicans have ended up fighting the 2012 presidential election again – and winning. Their old candidate, Mitt Romney, has been brought back, like a pop star brought out of retirement to try to sell out venues across the U.S.. Romney even trekked up to Alaska, where I witnessed him tell already-convinced supporters in an aircraft hanger outside Anchorage what a disaster Obama’s second term has been.
‘The President did not have a clue when it came to American strength and American resolve and American involvement in the world,’ Romney he said. And as for Russia? When Romney described Putin as America’s 'biggest geopolitical foe' at the last election, Obama had memorably mocked him, saying 'the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back...the cold war’s been over for 20 years'. Romney told Alaskans this week ‘it’s now time for him to apologise to America,’ It’s a powerful card for Republicans to play: they mocked us, they were wrong. It’s time to move over.
Whatever fantasies Romney may have about running for president again in 2016, the GOP candidate is more likely to be from the younger generation of Republicans, who have also come to Alaska to lambast the president. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party senator from Texas, held three events here to see if his anti-establishment rhetoric works as well in the sub-arctic as it does in the desert. It did.
'After spending time in Washington, it’s great to be back in America,' he told a crowd in Alaska’s Mat-Su valley. They loved it. He joked about the recent White House intruder being unmasked as Hillary Clinton. Alaska and Texas are very alike, he said, both being 'freedom-loving folks’. And he had his own riff on mocking the president about Russia, comparing the 'Obama kitty cat' to the 'Russian bear.' The Alaskans lapped it all up. One enthusiastic supporter hollered each line back at him. ‘Get him out!’ for Obama. ‘No surprise!’ on border control.
And it all worked – this time. The Republicans took states from West Virginia to Colorado and ended up with a healthy majority in the Senate. They won a string of governor elections, making breakthroughs even in Democrat strongholds like Massachussets and Maryland. These successes would ordinarily point to a Republican breakthrough in the next presidential election – especially at a time when the divisive Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ biggest hope.
But the Republicans now face a problem. It has been fun, and fruitful, to spend months denouncing an unpopular president and reminding voters that the Republicans may have been right all along — on Russia, on the economy, and the other issues that Romney rather woefully failed to articulate. Their success in the midterms is thanks to Obama, and next time they will be bereft of the man who has become their main campaigning weapon. They would be shooting bullets into a corpse.
The positive reasons for voting Republican, the coherent agenda which America would be asked to choose in 2016, is still nowhere to be seen in 2014. They won this week with a simple proposition: Obama is a dud. They will need something more convincing when they don’t have a lame-duck president to kick around anymore.