For the Democratic Party, Tuesday night was brutal. For Hillary Clinton’s future, however, there were some silver linings.
As Democrats wake up this morning reeling from an electoral spanking, the 2016 presidential race will unofficially begin — with the main focus on the woman who is all but certain to seek her party’s nomination a second time.
With that in mind, here are POLITICO’s takeaways on what the midterm drubbing means for Clinton and the Democrats heading into the next White House race.
Clinton will face enormous pressure to declare – and fast
Even before networks officially declared a Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats were openly saying they hope Clinton will declare for 2016 soon after Election Day.
That sentiment is about to become overwhelming, as the party tries to recover from an election night hangover that’s worse than most operatives on either side had anticipated. The evening, almost entirely devoid of bright spots for Democrats, was a shellacking for President Barack Obama. It will only accelerate the party’s look ahead to its next leader, especially among donors, who want someone to rally around.
Clinton has spent two years as the prohibitive Democratic front-runner in the polls despite keeping politics largely at arm’s length until the end of the midterms. Some of her advisers have suggested opening an exploratory committee this year to allow her to raise money sooner, while others are adamant that she should wait until next year.
Some Democrats said Tuesday night that Clinton will want to wait a bit to let the 2014 midterms pass, and to get some distance between herself and a bloodbath for her party. She also genuinely doesn’t seem ready to flip a switch on a campaign : A number of decisions still remain about staffing and, more importantly, messaging.
But others believe Clinton can’t afford to be coy about her intentions beyond the next few weeks, and forming an exploratory committee without an official announcement will not satisfy some donors and activists.
She can run against Washington more easily now
Clinton’s major problem was always going to be running as the candidate of the two-term party in power. Separating from Obama poses major risks for a Democrat who had trouble with portions of the base in 2008 and who served in the administration for four years.
The fact that Tuesday’s election that was seen largely as a statement against Obama may give Clinton some wiggle room with her own base to create distance from him. But a newly minted Republican Senate helps her to solve the problem of how to run against Washington.
Regardless of whether Senate moderates try to keep tea party officials and potential presidential hopefuls like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in line, Democrats are cheering on a fight on that side of the aisle. A GOP-held Senate gives her a clear point of contrast to run against. Democrats are banking on Republicans getting mired in intraparty gridlock amid a still-unresolved civil war between conservatives and the establishment.
Senate results by state
Even if that doesn’t happen, Clinton is certain to campaign as if it will. Leading into Tuesday, some Clinton allies were predicting a miserable night for Democrats — and saying it would ultimately benefit her.
The bigger problem for Clinton ? The election results signal a restless country that dislikes both parties but badly wants leadership. That gives her an opportunity to run as an experienced, Margaret Thatcher-type fighter who can govern in an ungovernable moment — but that also means suppressing the caution that Democrats say has hobbled her in the past.
Exit polls showed voters are anxious about the economy, meaning Clinton will need to formulate a broad economic message that appeals to the Democratic base without turning off independents who’ve backed her before.
A Clinton rival has a tougher hill to climb
Anthony Brown’s loss in the Maryland governor’s race has serious implications for the outgoing governor, Martin O’Malley, who has been laying the groundwork for a presidential race of his own for months.
Brown, O’Malley’s lieutenant governor, was favored to win for months. His victory was expected to be an affirmation of the O’Malley record, a decidedly progressive checklist of passing the DREAM Act and legislation allowing same-sex marriage.
But O’Malley’s numbers in his own state have faltered, and Brown’s loss was widely seen as a serious setback for a governor who had planned to sell his brand of leadership.
A source close to O’Malley said the outgoing governor had sounded “alarm” bells about the Brown campaign strategy many weeks ago, amid a sense that the candidate was trying to glide to a win despite running a “poorly executed campaign that deviated from O’Malley’s winning strategies in the past two elections.” O’Malley never ran on social issues, the source said, winning twice in a row and doubling his margin the second time, while Brown focused heavily on them.
O’Malley urged Brown’s team to change strategy, the source said, but he never did. Nonetheless, Brown has now gone from being a sought-after ally to an albatross for O’Malley’s national ambitions.