Karl Rove to Republicans: Don’t Get Excited About Midterms Just Yet

A warning from someone who knows the pitfalls of high expectations.

National Journal
Marina Koren
March 13, 2014, 6:13 a.m.

Karl Rove has a warn­ing for his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans about their vic­tory in this week’s House race: “Don’t un­cork the cham­pagne.”

Rove quashed the GOP’s good feel­ing about Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly’s nar­row vic­tory over Demo­crat Alex Sink in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion in a Wall Street Journ­al op-ed Wed­nes­day night. “Spe­cial elec­tions don’t al­ways dic­tate how midterms turn out,” said the former deputy chief of staff and seni­or ad­viser to George W. Bush. A win in March doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily sig­nal a change in the tide for the Grand Old Party in Novem­ber.

Rove knows well the dangers of head­ing in­to an elec­tion with high ex­pect­a­tions. On the night of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, dis­patch­ing from the Fox News stu­dio, was con­vinced that Mitt Rom­ney would win. But when the net­work called Ohio — and, sub­sequently, the elec­tion — for Pres­id­ent Obama, a ram­bling Rove re­fused to ac­cept the res­ults. The pure dis­be­lief be­gins in earn­est at 1:38 in the video.

Many con­ser­vat­ives were sure they had the right can­did­ate and the right polit­ic­al cli­mate to take back the pres­id­ency that year. Like Rove, they learned the les­son of over­stat­ing the level of voter sup­port the hard way.

Re­pub­lic­ans and polit­ic­al ana­lysts may not be pop­ping bub­bly just yet, but they’re cer­tainly en­er­gized after Flor­ida’s spe­cial elec­tion. After all, “this was a race that most polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers ex­pec­ted Sink to win,” ex­plains Chris Cil­lizza at The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Jolly was a lob­by­ist — not ex­actly the best pro­fes­sion in this polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment — who was de­cidedly un­proven as a can­did­ate.”

A vic­tory des­pite a can­did­ate’s rook­ie status sug­gests that it was strategy that pre­vailed at the bal­lot box. This week’s spe­cial elec­tion was a test-drive for the two parties’ play­books for this year’s House and Sen­ate races, ex­plains Molly Ball at The At­lantic. “For Re­pub­lic­ans, the strategy is simple and single-minded: Pound on Obama­care, re­mind­ing voters how un­happy it has made them and how angry they are with the pres­id­ent,” Ball writes. For Demo­crats, it’s “frantic­ally try­ing to talk about any­thing else.”

A test-drive eight months out can pre­dict only so much. Still, Demo­crats are nervous about how well it ap­par­ently turned out for the op­pos­ing party. Re­pub­lic­ans know it, and they’re go­ing to stick with anti-Obama­care game plan un­til fall. “But only if they ap­ply its les­sons in dozens of oth­er con­tests for the House and Sen­ate,” Rove warns, “can they turn a good midterm in­to a great one.”