The GOP victory Election Night was the easy part. Now comes the real work: forging an agenda that will solidify Republican gains over the next two years. Exit polls make clear that dissatisfaction with President Obama drove this election. As the president famously said in October, "I am not on the ballot this fall. ... But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."
The president's words came true, but not quite in the way he intended. Come 2016, however, Republicans will have to run on what they've accomplished legislatively and what a different agenda a Republican would bring to the White House. But the electorate will be significantly broader than the one that went to the polls on Tuesday.
Only about 37 percent of eligible voters turned out this election, according to early analyses — which redounded to the GOP's advantage. Democrats weren't able to energize their base. Black turnout was down, resulting in a 2 percent decline in their proportion of the overall vote compared to 2012, a presidential year, and 1 percent less than in 2010, another midterm election.
Hispanic turnout was down, as well. Despite gains in population, Hispanics made up only 8 percent of voters in 2014 compared to 10 percent in 2012. Single women represented 2 percent fewer voters than in 2012. As a result, whites, especially white males, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, had greater impact on the final results. Republican candidates received a whopping 64 percent of white male votes in 2014.
Republicans can't count on Democrats' apathy next time out. But the results in this year's returns point to some opportunities for the GOP to expand support among traditionally Democratic groups — provided the party doesn't blow it with a legislative agenda that rekindles disaffection.
The two groups who are most critical to winning the White House and retaining control of Congress are women and Hispanics. If the GOP alienates these groups, their path to victory will be virtually nonexistent.
Republicans did better among women overall this time than in 2012, but not quite as well as they did in 2010, when dissatisfaction with Obamacare drove a GOP takeover of the House. In 2010, GOP candidates overall won 51 percent of the female vote, which slipped to 47 percent in 2014. Congressional Republicans will have to keep women in the fold in 2016, which will depend on looking like leaders not obstructionists.
Among Hispanics, too, the GOP did much better than in 2012, winning more than a third of Hispanic votes nationwide, compared to only 27 percent in 2012. The key may well be that, for the most part, Republican candidates didn't shoot themselves in the foot with nasty rhetoric as Republican presidential hopefuls did in 2012. Mitt Romney's invitation for illegal immigrants to self-deport turned off many Hispanic voters, who viewed the proposal as not only unrealistic, but also cruel, dividing families and devastating immigrant communities.
In Colorado, for example, U.S. Sen.-elect Cory Gardner largely stayed away from illegal immigrant bashing, and it paid off. Exit poll data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal showed Republicans doing much better than they did in the 2010 midterms in counties where Hispanic voters make up more than 20 percent of the vote. Gardner did better in 20 of the 21 heavily Hispanic counties than the 2010 GOP Senate candidate did.
A critical test for Republicans may come before they assume actual leadership of the Senate in January. The president has promised executive action before the end of the year to give legal status to as many as half of the 11 million illegal immigrants present in the U.S. now. Doing so will infuriate many in the GOP and could prove a Pyrrhic victory even for illegal immigrants. If the president acts unilaterally, he will invite a legal challenge to his authority and virtually guarantee that the new GOP Congress will try to cut off funds for implementation of his executive order when they return in January.
But Republicans would be smart not to overreact. They should, instead, move their own immigration bills forward, expanding the number of legal immigrants admitted and creating a temporary worker program that could accommodate some of those undocumented workers already doing jobs Americans won't take. How they handle this tough situation could open an easier path to the White House in 2016 — or derail the stunning victory they achieved this week.