Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Five big questions on 2014 elections

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:39 AM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As 2014 elections loom, there are questions beyond which party controls Congress
  • Julian Zelizer asks whether mainstream GOP can overcome tea party direction
  • He says which argument is stronger: against Obamacare, or for minimum wage hike?
  • Zelizer: What impact will the politics of immigration reform have on the result?

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The midterm elections are around the corner. The big question will obviously be what happens to control of the House and Senate. But control of Congress is only one part of the equation. There are a series of issues that will shape the individual races that will tell us a lot about which way American politics is heading.

Can mainstream Republicans take the party back? There are a number of House and Senate primaries where Republicans, organized through business-backed organizations, are trying to seize back control of their party.

Former Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette and the Main Street Partnership, a group with strong backing from the corporate world, are trying to counteract the power of the tea party, which they believe is damaging the standing of the GOP. "We want our party back," LaTourette explained to the The New York Times.

In the 2nd District of Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson is facing a strong challenge in the May primaries from Bryan Smith, a tea party Republican who has received support from the Club for Growth. Smith is challenging the eight-term incumbent by depicting him as an embodiment of Washington Republicans who refuse to stand firm for real budget cuts, a legislator who agreed to reopen the federal government even without what conservatives would consider a good budget deal. The Main Street Partnership has been fighting back.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The most visible battle between a mainstream Republican and tea party Republican is taking place in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from Matt Bevin in the primary. In Texas, the controversial right-wing Rep. Steve Stockman is running against Sen. John Cornyn.

Can Democrats take advantage of Republican problems? Despite the fallout from the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are hoping that they can take advantage of the turmoil facing the Republicans over the recent year, as the party's approval ratings have plummeted in light of the budget battles and the public's unhappiness with the party's growing extremism.

There are certain must-wins for Democrats if they are to show that they are capable of taking advantage of this moment. In Florida's 13th District, Alex Sink, a well-known and well-respected Democrat, is attempting to win the seat of long-term Republican veteran Bill Young, who recently died, leaving open this highly competitive district. If Democrats can't win this special election on March 11, it will signal trouble.

Millionaires now majority in Congress
Civil war in the GOP?

Democrats will also be looking for a win in Florida's 2nd District, where Gwen Graham is trying to defeat Rep. Steve Southerland in a test of whether the South has really softened as conservative territory. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been pouring resources into the district to paint Southerland as a poster child for the House GOP. "Congressman Southerland's reckless plan to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act would mean 614,200 consumers in Florida would be left without health insurance rebates," said one party spokesperson.

What effect will the politics of immigration have? After the 2012 election, many experts predicted that the immigrant vote would continue to flow toward the Democrats while Republicans will pay the electoral price for their obstruction. Now we'll find out if that's correct.

In Colorado's 6th District, Republican Mike Coffman, a former opponent of immigration reform who changed his tune after redistricting brought an infusion of Latinos into his constituency, is struggling to hold on to his seat. Democrats are hoping that the sizable Hispanic population in suburban Denver will demonstrate their opposition to what the House Republicans have been doing by blocking legislation that would offer a path to citizenship.

Which is the more politically potent issue -- opposing Obamacare or supporting the minimum wage? Both parties are putting forth national issues for candidates to run with in their districts and states. Democrats are honing in on the issue of economic inequality, stressing their campaign to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to over $10 by 2015.

For Democrats, the risk is alienating Democrats from centrist constituencies who believe this will damage the economy. But they hope that the strong support in polls for the minimum wage boosts their candidates. Rep. Steve Israel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicts that there are at least 12 seats where labor-based campaigns to raise the minimum wage will help Democrats. "The refusal to increase the minimum wage is just one of the ways House Republicans have inflicted harm on the economy and hurt people's pocketbooks," Israel said.

For Republicans, the risk is they will be perceived as a party that is stuck in the mud, at a time that millions of Americans are starting to finally see benefits from the ACA rather than simply see the program as something abstract that threatens their families. In Arkansas, Republicans are counting on Sen. Mark Pryor's support for the Affordable Care Act as a useful target for Rep. Tom Cotton to unseat this incumbent. Republicans will do the same in Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu has a record of statements in support of the health care program.

How much money should we spend on elections -- and where should it come from? This is the question now asked of every congressional and presidential election, but it is one we need to continue asking. On both sides -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Works, Club for Growth, and America Rising on the right and American Bridge and Priorities USA on the left -- independent organizations are ready to roll in an unprecedented effort.

With each election we have been seeing the cost of campaigning rise and the need for candidates to court donors as more and more urgent. The Kentucky Senate race will probably be the most expensive ever. All of this fuels the power of private money in our political system, undermining trust in government and supporting gridlock.

When the results become clear in November, we will know a lot more about the general tenor of the American electorate. Politicians in both parties will have a better read of the kind of electorate they will be facing as they move into the 2016 presidential election.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT