Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The World Cup of U.S. politics

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most Americans consider midterm elections insignificant; many don't vote
  • Julian Zelizer: Midterms can make a big difference, and this year's vote is huge
  • If Democrats lose Senate majority, Obama's woes would only grow
  • Zelizer: Democrats would lose influence, and replacing judges would be very difficult

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." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Most Americans don't think that midterm elections really matter. The majority of voters come out only for presidential elections. Midterms are left to the most activist parts of the population, the people who like to follow politics in off hours and who care as deeply about who wins elected office as they do about sports teams or celebrities.

That's a big mistake. Midterms play a huge role in shaping American politics, and this year's could be especially significant.

Traditionally, the party of the president does poorly. The 1938 midterm elections created a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans that stifled Franklin Roosevelt and subsequent Democratic presidents for decades to come.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The 1958 midterms emboldened Northern liberals to push a new agenda, while the 1966 midterms killed any remaining momentum Lyndon Johnson had for his Great Society. In 1994, Republicans reshaped the discourse of Washington by taking control of Congress, while Democrats put a kibosh on President George W. Bush's initiatives when they took it back in 2006.

This year, the stakes are big. While Republicans will certainly retain control of the House, it is unclear whether Democrats will continue to control a majority of the Senate. The importance of this outcome is enormous and will have huge consequences in the coming two years.

Why does control of the Senate matter so much, especially in an era where Congress seems so gridlocked that it can't accomplish anything?

The most important reason is that the Senate Democratic majority is the only effective counterweight to the immense power that the tea party Republicans can wield within the House Republican Caucus.

The Boehner-Obama rift

House Speaker John Boehner has proved repeatedly that he is unable to control the 25 to 30 members of his caucus who have continued to push the party sharply to the right and who have refused to enter into any kind of compromises with the Democrats on matters such as immigration.

Impotent as a leader, Boehner has ironically depended on his ability to tell colleagues that they are wasting their time in the House if they adopt tea party positions that the Senate Democrats won't accept. If Republicans gain control of the Senate in November, he won't have that check to point to anymore and we can see the GOP shift even further to the right.

With control of the majority, Senate Democrats still have the power that social scientists call "agenda setting." Although passing legislation is obviously the prime goal of members of Congress, their other function is to get issues on the table and ensure that public debate continues on key problems.

By doing that, they can keep legislative proposals alive and when the right moment hits, usually some kind of crisis, their proposals are ready to go forward. Immigration reform would likely have withered on the legislative vine of gridlock had not Senate Democrats sent the House a comprehensive reform bill and kept pressure on the lower chamber to deal with the issue.

Immigration reform is dead for the rest of the Congress, but it is an issue people are still talking about and proposals will be back on the table if Democrats have their say about it.

A Senate majority is also key to the future of the courts.

Senate Democrats scored a huge victory when they changed the rules so that the minority could not filibuster against judicial and executive appointments (other than the Supreme Court). This has already streamlined the appointment process and resulted in a burst of nominations being confirmed.

In coming years, we're likely to see numerous court battles, including the replacement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg if she retires. Ginsburg is a vital liberal voice on a Supreme Court that has proved to be increasingly conservative.

If Republicans gain control of the Senate, the White House will be in big trouble with its appointments. Republicans will be able to block ratification of a strong progressive nominee and the White House would find itself under enormous pressure to move toward the center in choosing appointments if they are going to have a chance of confirmation.

Control over the Senate also matters because it will be one of the first major stories of the 2016 election campaign for the White House.

If Republicans gain control of the Senate, it will spark a conversation about 2016 that begins with talk of how Democrats have become weaker politically as a result of Obama's troubles and how Republicans -- despite all their own approval rating problems -- are on the upswing. This would certainly provide a boost to their party and a good framework for Republican presidential nominees to start their campaigns.

If Democrats retain control of the Senate, it would have a very different effect. The storyline for the 2016 election would begin with the ability of Democrats to check the Republican resurgence. The Republican civil war would become more intense, with the right blaming the party's establishment for crushing more conservative candidates in the primaries and the establishment blaming the right for forcing candidates to take positions that are politically unpopular.

The midterms are a big deal.

What happens to the Senate will play a very important role in the direction of U.S. politics in the coming years, even if Congress remains in its current dysfunctional state. Americans should not be complacent. Don't leave the election to the activists.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT