Why you should care

Because already some key players and trends are changing the shape of politics as we know it.

As political events go, last night’s midterm elections results were pretty rivetting stuff. There were dizzing infographics, reams of punditry and hopeful victory speeches. But did we hear one word about Ben Sasse?

The fifth-generation Nebraskan is an academic who’s given up his university post to go to Washington, after de facto winning his Senate seat in the Republican primary last spring. He may be the man who makes Ted Cruz-style conservatism palatable for the masses. Nor was there much talk last night about other things, like what the wipeout of moderate Democrats, as a group, means for the Senate next term. And there was barely a peep about Republicans’ surprising new talking points on … voting rights. (Or at least one Republican’s.)

We asked OZY political correspondent Emily Cadei, who’s been covering the campaign since last December — from rising political phenoms like Tom Cotton to under-the-radar policy juggernauts like paid sick leave— for her take on the results. Not what they mean right now, but long after the confetti has been swept up and the word midterm is out of our minds. Looking past the election cycle, and months down the road, Cadei argues that while the political wrangling has only begun, there’s little question where our politics is headed. Short answer: Gridlock City.

Down Go the Moderate Dems, and Up Goes the Gridlock.

The mainstream media has been focusing on upheaval in the Senate, but the real story line is not how the Democrats lost their grip. It’s how they got here — here being a very dismal place indeed. Red-state Democrats have been outright endangered this cycle: One of them, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, went down early last night, while Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu will struggle to retain her seat in next month’s runoff. Almost by definition, these senators were the centrist kind — with no choice but to represent states that, on average, gave Mitt Romney nearly 60 percent of their votes in the 2012 presidential race. When you add those losses together with the retirement of four other moderate Democrats in Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia and Iowa — all replaced by Republicans Tuesday night — it amounts to a huge exodus of moderates from the Senate’s Democratic caucus. Only a small handful of centrist red-state Dems remain; we presume they are lonely.

The bad news extends beyond the election-night losers, because fewer Senate centrists portends even more polarlzation. As much as Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republicans’ incoming Senate majority leader, might hope Republican control means an end to legislative gridlock, it’s highly unlikely: The GOP will still need Democratic votes to clear the 60-vote threshold, and a smaller, more liberal set of Democrats won’t make it easy. Not that Democrats will have much incentive to compromise. They’re already looking ahead to 2016, when the tables will be turned and Senate Republicans are the ones who will be playing defense in battleground and blue states.

Mr. Sasse Goes to Washington.

It’s not Ben Sasse’s fault that he has flown under the radar. The 42-year-old Nebraska academic made a splash in political circles when he won a three-way GOP primaryfor his state’s open Senate seat in May. But his general election race wasn’t exactly competitive, and the news media has mostly ignored him since.

That’ll change when Mr. Sasse goes to Washington. The former president of Midland University, a small liberal arts college in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, boasts the conservative intellectual chops to rival, say, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Bachelor’s degree from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale, award-winning dissertation on the rise of the religious right in the second half of the 20th century. And he has Cruz and other conservative groups to thank for his victory; their support helped him come from behind to defeat an establishment favorite in the primary. Right-leaning organizations and publications were singing his praises even before he launched his campaign.

But are Sasse’s elbows sharp enough for Senate politics? As analyst Stu Rothenberg wrote earlier this year, Sasse “seems to have been able to be all things to all people during his Senate bid this year.” At one campaign event, the senator-to-be offered a contrast to his sharp-tongued, Constitution-invoking colleagues and instead showed a sense of humor, of all things, according to Rothenberg. That kind of personality could help Sasse win allies on Capitol Hill, but it also could alienate some of his hard-line supporters. Either way, his will be an intriguing career to watch unfold.

Rand Paul Finds His Crossover Issue. Could Others?

Republicans have a well-known minority problem, in that few minorities vote for them. But likely 2016 presidential contender Rand Paul thinks his party has, as the Kentucky senator put it on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, a “huge opportunity” to win over African-American voters. And he may have just found his crossover issue.

So the question is whether other Republicans might get on the bus and use voting rights issues to court black voters.

The drama surrounding voting rights — primarily minority voting rights — began when the Supreme Court threw out a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had required some Southern states to get federal approval for their district maps and voter ID laws. With a wave of redistricting challenges and voter ID laws, the issue will only get more animated in the lead-up to 2016. On Sunday, Paul said he doesn’t disagree with the principle of voter ID laws but said obsessing over them is, uh, stupid: “I just think it’s a dumb idea for Republicans to emphasize this and say, ‘This is how we are going to win the elections.’”

tight photo of a politician

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul

Paul at least recognizes that voting rights is a defining issue for black voters. But conservatives continue to push voter ID laws that they argue are necessary to prevent voter fraud, though actual evidence of fraud is very limited, recent studies find. Liberals have successfully challenged those laws in places like Wisconsin and Arkansas in recent months. Voting rights advocates also got protective measures on the ballot in Illinoisand Connecticut.

So the question is whether other Republicans might get on the bus and use voting rights issues to court black voters. So far, the response has not been encouraging. But Paul seems to be focused on the long game. And that could end up helping him should he be the GOP presidential nominee two years from now.

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