TIME 2016 Election

Dr. Ben Carson’s Non-Campaign for President Hits the Air

Dr. Ben Carson is shown on a screen backstage while he speaks during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
Dr. Ben Carson is shown on a screen backstage while he speaks during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Lexey Swall—Grain for TIME

A lengthy informercial on the conservative doctor may be a prelude to a presidential campaign

Pretending to run for president can be a lucrative business. Just ask Donald Trump, who’s milked every dime and dollop of attention from his perpetual flirtation with politics. So too can running a no-shot campaign. Just ask Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, whose book sales skyrocketed from the attendant publicity.

Sometimes the spoils of fake campaigns accrue to people other than the supposed candidate. For many months now, a political-action committee has been raising money to cnovince retired doctor Ben Carson to run for president. Carson, who shot to stardom on the right with a rebuke to President Obama at the 2013 national prayer breakfast, has become a sizzling commodity in conservative circles, racking up straw poll victories and placing high in surveys of a hypothetical 2016 field. The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee has capitalized, raising a staggering $11 million this cycle in a bid to coax Carson to run. That’s more than the Ready for Hillary folks, even though Clinton seems nearly certain to run and Carson has told media, including TIME, that he has little interest.

He may have changed his mind. This weekend, an hour-long documentary on Carson will air in 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., including media markets in Oregon and upstate New York where Presidential politics rarely travels. Carson’s business manager is footing the bill for the program, entitled “Ben Carson: A Breath of Fresh Air.” The lengthy, expensive advertisement for Carson’s campaign-in-waiting convinced Fox News to cut ties with Carson, as it did in 2012 with Gingrich and Rick Santorum when those men took serious steps toward launching presidential bids. “2016 is upon us, and Ben Carson is first out of the gate,” declared the Democratic research firm American Bridge.

While the documentary seems to indicate that Carson is seriously mulling a campaign, it is not likely to convince rival political operations to take the doctor seriously.

There is no doubt that Carson is hugely popular on the right; in a recent poll of Iowa Republicans, he placed second to Mitt Romney in a ranking of prospective presidential candidates. And his backers have shrewdly tapped into the direct-mail fundraising machine that long been a powerful force on the right. But smart campaigns don’t blow huge sums on running over-long advertisements at odd times in states that don’t matter. It’s an unusual stunt for an unusual figure, who still may not be a candidate at all.

TIME 2014 Election

The Tom Steyer Strategy: Billionaire Activist Reflects on 2014

Tom Steyer Green Giant
Tom Steyer is building an army from his base in San Francisco Jason Madara for TIME

Despite mixed returns at the polls, the billionaire businessman remains bullish his climate campaign can change politics

In 2014, Tom Steyer emerged as the Democratic Party’s great green hope. The billionaire financier pledged to sink a chunk of his fortune into a campaign to make climate change a central issue in the midterm elections, and he delivered on his promise. Steyer’s political-action committee, NextGen Climate, spent some $65 million during the 2014 cycle. It ran ads in seven hand-picked states, assembled a sophisticated field organization and built a sprawling database of committed supporters.

Was it money well spent? If you measure success at the ballot box, Steyer’s return on investment may seem skimpy.

Just three of the seven candidates NextGen supported were victorious on Tuesday. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen fended off a challenge from Scott Brown in New Hampshire; Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf coasted to victory in Pennsylvania; and Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters won an open seat in Michigan.

But Steyer’s group lost competitive Senate races in Colorado and Iowa, states into which it poured nearly $12 million, and which may prove the difference in the battle for control of the chamber. (Not all ballots have been counted in the Alaska Senate contest, and Louisiana is headed for a December runoff.) NextGen also came out on the wrong side of tight gubernatorial races in Florida and Maine, despite heavy investment to dislodge incumbent Republicans Rick Scott and Paul LePage.

But Steyer is sanguine about the election’s outcome. In an interview with TIME on Thursday, he pointed to NextGen’s ability to push climate issues toward the forefront of campaigns, as well as its efforts to begin the construction of a political machine that can become a powerful force in coming years.

“In terms of the things that we can control, we felt like wow—we way over-performed our expectations,” Steyer says, noting that the group surpassed its target of amassing a quarter-million climate-driven voters by 100,000 and beat its goal by building an email list of a million names. “Climate was a top-tier issue in every one of the states we were working on,” Steyer says, “Which is a huge change—very different from 2012, very different from 2010.”

NextGen forced Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst to defend her climate position in Iowa, and Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner was sufficiently cowed to run ads touting his support for wind energy in the state. But both GOP candidates prevailed. And in both states, voters declined to rank climate in the top quartet of issues, according to CNN exit polls, instead listing foreign policy, healthcare, the economy and illegal immigration as their top priorities.

In Florida, Scott made only fleeting gestures to the environmental community, and in Maine Steyer’s group failed to oust LePage, who calls climate change a hoax. NextGen’s efforts may have put Republicans on the defensive, but that’s a relatively modest achievement for tens of millions of dollars.

With the GOP poised to take control of Congress in January, the prospects for positive legislation on environmental issues have dimmed. Republicans are preparing a push to approve the Keystone XL pipeline—”a terrible idea,” especially amid plunging oil prices, Steyer says—as well as a likely effort to green-light drilling on public lands. But Steyer says that while NextGen will stay focused on educating people about the economic and environmental benefits of pursuing progressive energy policy, he’s conscious of the limits of its power to affect the legislative process.

“Do I think it’s possible for us to educate people about the facts on the Keystone XL pipeline and influence their thinking by making them aware of what the underlying issues are? Sure,” he says. “But we definitely can’t control this issue” in Congress.

The same goes for this week’s outcome at the polls. Steyer chalks up the defeats in close races to the headwinds of waging a campaign in an off-year cycle, when a second-term president with foundering approval ratings buffeted Democratic candidates. “There was a Republican wave that has nothing to do with us, and in certain of those races, it swept over us,” he says. “It’s something we can’t control.”

And so Steyer hasn’t wavered in his political or financial commitments. NextGen is “not a drive-by super PAC,” he says. “We’re going to build political assets, we’re going to build an organization, we’re choosing states that have national significance. All those things are [still] true … regardless of the outcome. So I feel really good about what we did, and I feel really good about where we’re going.”

TIME 2014 Election

How the Republican Establishment Got Its Groove Back

Election Celebration Greg Abbott, Election
Supporters cheer as balloons fall after Texas Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor Greg Abbott's victory speech in Austin on Nov. 4, 2014. David J. Phillip—AP

After a stinging defeat last fall, the Republican Establishment seized control of the party and steered it to victory

For the Republican Party, Tuesday’s Senate triumph had roots in regret.

Last November, the GOP found itself perched on a political precipice. Its poll numbers had cratered, its demographic future was murky and the government shutdown had proven disastrous. Looming on the horizon was a year of bitter primary squabbles, which strategists feared would produce shoddy candidates capable of hobbling its quest to reclaim the Senate.

Twelve months later, Republicans notched sweeping victories, paced by a banner class of recruits and propelled by the money and muscle of an Establishment wing that finally snatched back the reins of the party. The GOP could not have defeated the Democrats without first dispatching its insurgents. And so the story of its decisive victory on Tuesday begins not in the corridors of the Capitol or on the stump in a swing state, but rather deep in Republican territory, with a sleepy special election in southwest Alabama.

In the wake of the shutdown debacle last fall, a mainstream Republican named Bradley Byrne was struggling to beat back Tea Partyer Dean Young for a seat opened by a congressional retirement. Young was the sort of insurgent the Establishment had grown to loathe. Incendiary and unpolished, he called Ted Cruz a model legislator and vowed to go to Washington to “shut it down again.” Party elders saw the race as their first chance to reshape the party in the wake of the shutdown. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose policy had long been to stay neutral in primaries, led a brigade of business lobbies into the district. The strike was a sneak attack. Eschewing TV ads, the Chamber quietly shelled out some $200,000 on the race, dropping direct mail around the district. Byrne won in a nail-biter.

It was the first time that the party’s establishment wing had directly confronted the Tea Party movement, and it set the tone for the battles to come. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell visited a Chamber board meeting the day after the race, and declared the sleepy special election the most important contest in the country, on a night that also saw Chris Christie win a decisive victory in the New Jersey governor’s race. It was a token of gratitude toward the Chamber, which would playing a leading role in the Establishment revolt, spending about $70 million on 2014 races and winning 14 of the 15 primaries it entered. “We don’t have anything against the Tea Party,” says Scott Reed, the Chamber’s chief political strategist. “But when a handful of bad actors hijacked the movement, that’s when we decided to step in.”

The goal, party strategists say, was to avoid the kind of disastrous candidates—the Todd Akins, the Sharron Angles, the Christine O’Donnells—whose extreme positions and outré remarks hampered the GOP up and down the ballot in past Senate stumbles. The plot to crush the Tea Party proved a smash success. For the first time since 2008, not a single incumbent Republican senator lost in a primary.

After Alabama, the emboldened Establishment moved quickly. Party committees blacklisted a Republican ad firm called Jamestown Associates, causing it to lose a series of lucrative contracts. Jamestown’s sin? Working with a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was part of a passel of Tea Party groups who infuriated party bigwigs by egging on the shutdown. McConnell spread word that the leaders of these groups, whose organizing principle was fiscal discipline, were taking bloated salaries. The Senate Conservatives Fund, McConnell aide Josh Holmes, told the New York Times, “has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican Party like a drunk who tears up every bar they walk into. The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell’s bar, and he doesn’t throw you out, he locks the door.”

In a series of key contests, the Establishment’s money and muscle helped lift struggling candidates out of crowded primary fields. In May, a coalition of center-right business groups boosted Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker, over the 40% threshold to avoid a runoff, saving GOP forces around $20 million in the process. The next month, it did the same in Iowa for Joni Ernst, who went on to topple Democrat Bruce Braley in one of the year’s decisive Senate races.

Ernst also got a much-needed assist from a GOP research firm called America Rising. Launched by three top party operatives after 2012, the group had a mandate to erase the opposition research edge Democrats enjoyed in past cycles. The investment paid dividends early on a cold, dark March morning. Tim Miller, the group’s executive director, was reviewing the latest clips compiled by his team of twenty-something research junkies when he came across something so juicy it might just alter the balance of the Senate. “Holy s—!” he shouted. It was a video of Braley, standing before a half-dozen bottles of liquor at a Texas fundraiser, disparaging Sen. Chuck Grassley as a farmer who “never went to law school.”

Miller’s group leaked the video to an Iowa television reporter, hoping to assure at least a single airplay on local television, which would allow it to be aired in future ads. Instead it spread like wildfire. The clip cast Braley as out of touch with his agricultural state and proved a body blow to Braley’s Iowa hopes. In the final Des Moines Register poll, 39 percent of Braley’s own supporters said his comments about Grassley were a crucial mistake.

In all, dozens of research hits unearthed by America Rising would make their way into ads aired by candidates and allied groups. “One of our big takeaways from the last cycle was the Democrats did a better job of investing in tracking and opposition research,” says Miller. “This time we needed to invest in that in order to make our paid media more effective.”

Meanwhile, Republicans were expanding the political map by putting unexpected states into play. In March, prized recruit Cory Gardner coaxed potential challengers to let him run opposed against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. In Virginia, former RNC chair Ed Gillespie launched a bid against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown moved to the Granite State to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in early April. Gillespie and Brown lost, but ran strong campaign that forced Democrats to funnel precious time and money into defending territory.

The next big moment came in a June, when GOP bigwigs scrambled to save Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in a runoff against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. Back in Washington, strategists saw McDaniel as a ticking time bomb. The GOP was so determined to be gaffe-proof in 2014 that it dispatched staffers to harass Senate hopefuls at a Washington airport in hopes of steeling them against surprise encounters with hostile trackers. McDaniel was the kind of firebrand they feared.

The establishment, led by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and his allies, pulled out every trick in the bag to snuff out the threat. In a tight runoff, they expanded the electorate by courting black voters. The Chamber enlisted Mississippi icon Brett Favre to cut a memorable ad for Cochran. They later repeated the tactic in North Carolina, where Nascar driver Richard Petty appeared in an ad for Tillis, and in Georgia, where hometown Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker made a Senate endorsement.

“If we had come up short in Mississippi, it would have had a domino effect” all summer, Reed says. “Beating McDaniel was a key turning point. It allowed us to turn the page on the primaries and focus on the general.”

As the Chamber led the way in the primaries and America Rising handled the research, the vaunted Koch network was laying the groundwork for November. The Kochs were the biggest spenders on the right on the 2014 election, with a hand in everything from the party’s ground game to its attack ads to its tech tools.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Koch-based network of state-based activists, shelled out more than $125 million to boost Republicans. About half that sum was plowed into a robust ground game powered by some 550 field staff. AFP ran its first ads the week of Labor Day 2013, with a million-dollar buy against Kay Hagan in North Carolina. The campaign slowly chipped away at the incumbent’s s approval rating, which hovered around 55% as 2014 dawned. “The earliest and biggest strategic decision we made was to go early,” says AFP president Tim Phillips. As November drew near, other members of the Koch network switched up tactics. The super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund began running “express advocacy” ads, spending some $25 million to boost candidates that helped Republicans reclaimed the Senate. The move forced the group to disclose donors, which it had long resisted. “That was a big decision for the Koch network,” says Phillips.

All these changes—better candidates, better research, smarter spending—coalesced on Tuesday, when Republicans picked up at least 7 Senate seats to seize control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2006.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2014 Election

The Challenge for the New Republican Majority

The GOP won the 2014 elections. Now it has to start thinking about 2015 and 2016.

Republicans scored a decisive victory Tuesday night, winning at least 52 seats to gain control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. On a banner evening, the GOP reached its magic number around 11:30 p.m., knocking off Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Colorado and North Carolina and staving off challenges in key battleground states like Georgia and Kansas.

With the win, Republicans exorcised the demons of the last two election cycles, when they fumbled chances to retake the upper chamber. The decisive victory extended to governor’s races, where the GOP beat back hard-fought challenges in Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan and picked up a seat in Illinois. And the party padded its caucus in the House, where they appeared on course to earn the largest majority since the 1920s.

MORE: See all the election results

Of all the victors, the night belonged to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who began it by celebrating a hard-fought Senate victory in Kentucky and wrapped it with the knowledge that he would be the chamber’s next majority leader. “We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” McConnell said at his victory party in Louisville, his wife beaming by his side. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

mitch.no.asterisk.indd
TIME

For McConnell, it was a moment to savor. The triumph was the realization of the Kentuckian’s lifelong ambition to become majority leader, as well as the culmination of his six-year plan to reclaim power in the Senate by thwarting Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. McConnell was also a chief architect of the quest to crush the Tea Party in 2014 primaries, a crusade which yielded the best roster of Senate candidates the party has boasted in recent memory.

Yet for all this success, the midterms may prove a pyrrhic victory for the Republican Party. The GOP sank a billion or more dollars into winning in 2014, but in doing so failed to fix the demographic challenges that threaten the party long into the future. In some ways, the triumph only deepened the problem. Republicans relied on a larger-than-ever share of white voters to win key races, but their performance with crucial constituencies—such as the Hispanic voters and young women that remain pillars of the Democratic Party—remained dismal. What’s more, the territorial gains the party notched this month are likely to be reversed in two years, when both the political map and the composition of the electorate will favor their opponents.

McConnell’s test now is to keep a caucus of soloists singing from the same songbook, and to demonstrate, after eight years in the minority, that Republicans are ready to govern as the party turns its sights to the 2016 presidential campaign. But Tuesday night’s victory may make the task harder.

After six years of opposing Obama’s agenda, it now falls on McConnell to craft one of his own. The transition to the majority won’t be easy. Unified Republican rule on Capitol Hill will heighten expectations of radical change.

But with Obama in the White House and Senate Democrats able to filibuster Republican priorities, the GOP has little shot at breaking the gridlock that has reigned in Washington. As majority leader, McConnell will have to unite a fractious caucus split between moderates who want to prove the GOP can govern and Tea Party legislators who interpret unified Republican control of Congress as a chance to fulfill the ambitions of the base. That means more votes to repeal Obamacare, more investigations into the White House, and the kind of austere fiscal policies destined to meet the president’s veto pen.

In the meantime, the fissures within the GOP look destined to widen. The Senate’s Tea Party faction includes several members who are fluent in the language of rebellion but have no patience for the dry prose of bipartisan governance. That includes members like Sen. Ted Cruz, whose loyalty is not to McConnell but to his own higher ambitions.

Cruz, the Texas freshman who is preparing for a prospective presidential bid, would not say whether he’d back McConnell in an interview with the Washington Post before the election. He pledged to try to pull the majority rightward, and promised a series of politically charged hearings “looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.” McConnell, along with House Speaker John Boehner, will have to satisfy constituents eager for an aggressive brand of conservatism without hobbling the prospects of the party’s eventual 2016 presidential candidate.

The first test will come this month, when Obama is expected to take executive action to rewrite part of U.S. immigration law, a move that will incense GOP voters. The Kentucky Senator has brushed aside the suggestion that the looming executive action on immigration could spark another government shutdown. And McConnell has expressed openness to sitting down with the President and searching for common ground, harkening back to his role in passing the Budget Control Act after the 2010 midterms and the fiscal cliff deal that extended the Bush-era tax cuts.

But the immigration debate is also a microcosm of how Republicans may have sacrificed their 2016 chances for a short-term victory. For the 2014 electorate, the issue’s politics were simple for Republicans: block reform at all cost. Opposing “amnesty” was a galvanizing issue to the GOP midterm base. But in 2016, McConnell will be forced to balance his members’ promises his cycle with the needs of his caucus and party to attract voters that reflect the changing electorate. “If they don’t move on immigration, 2016 will be a wave in our direction,” predicts one senior Democratic Party official.

Republicans realize that narrowing the gap with Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, is vital to their long-term viability. In the weeks after a 2012 defeat that few in the party saw coming, the Republican National Committee commissioned an “autopsy” into what went wrong, identifying problems from messaging to infrastructure. A blue-ribbon panel generated some simple, sage advice—with an emphasis on expanding the party. “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the group of party veterans wrote. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” The GOP went on to do just that, campaigning hard against immigration reform in a bid to turn out the older, whiter midterm electorate.

MORE: The weirdest moments of Election Day 2014

Campaigns are a science, and while they’re finally experimenting, the party still hasn’t quite found the formula that’s proven so successful for Democrats. This year the Republican National Committee created permanent field offices and deployed new digital tools, but is still a generation behind their opponents, according to operatives in both parties. “I think we’ve taken a big step in the right direction on tech,” says longtime Republican strategist Scott Reed. “But I’m not saying we’ve bridged the gap.” Says a Democratic official: “They are seeing what we built in 2012 and are trying to replicate it. They may get close, but they don’t have all the knowledge and data we gathered over the eight years prior.”

Democratic groups also maintain closer coordination and organization among their outside groups, with a well-oiled election machine that includes outside groups like House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, midterm powerhouses that reserved vast sums of cheap airtime months before GOP opponents. Despite Tuesday’s losses, Democrats ran disciplined campaigns that nearly prevailed in a year when they were buffeted with headwinds from a bad map and a second-term president with low approval ratings. The Democrats won a tough campaign in New Hampshire, where Senators Jeanne Shaheen fended off a spirited challenge from a talented candidate despite a spending onslaughts to prevail in a difficult climate.

On the GOP side, jumbled messages and duplicative efforts are not yet a thing of the past. “We have to get better at targeting messages to specific voters,” says Tim Miller, the executive director of American Rising, a GOP research firm. “We made some progress this cycle, but I still think we could have done a better job–just talking about (America) Rising—taking our research, taking our content and matching it with voters who would be moved by it. That’s something we want to do next cycle.”

MORE: Your guide to the 2016 GOP primary field

As they uncorked the champagne, many Republicans cautioned their compatriots not to misinterpret the results of an election fought on favorable footing: a series of contests where vulnerable Democrats in red states were forced to contend with angry midterm voters, in an anti-incumbent mood, with a presidential millstone hung around their necks.

“Republicans aren’t being given a mandate tonight. They are being offered an opportunity,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. With some exceptions, he added, the GOP remains “a wounded confederation of visionless and message-less souls. But at least we have made sufficient progress to acknowledge that.”

It’s up to McConnell to continue to the progress. The incoming majority leader has a familiar set of legislative priorities lined up: approving the Keystone Pipeline, repealing the medical device tax and scuttling the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act—plus a push for tax reform, trade agreements, and an effort to overhaul the chamber’s procedures and tighten its light work schedule.

But for McConnell—the man who boldly declared that his top priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president—goal number one remains winning elections. He did it on Tuesday night. Repeating the feat in two years will be a whole lot harder.

Read next: McConnell: No Shutdowns, No Full Obamacare Repeal

TIME 2014 Election

TIME’s 2014 Election Night Drinking Game

Raise your glass to democracy. At the very least, it will numb the pain.

It has all come down to this. After two years of sloganeering, more than $2 billion in ads, and all the phony umbrage the two parties could muster, it’s finally time for America to vote.

The truth is that Election Night can be kind of a bore, at least until the returns start rolling in. So: might we suggest a beverage? If you’re a Republican, you should have plenty to celebrate; if you’re a Democrat, the booze may help numb the pain. Either way, pour yourself a drink, and raise your glass to one of democracy’s great glorious rituals.

Here are TIME’s 2014 Election Night drinking game suggestions:

  • “Ground game.” The key is to pace yourself. Drink one sip.
  • An incumbent is described as “embattled.” Drink three sips.
  • A Taylor Swift reference. Drink three.
  • “It will all come down to turnout.” Finish your drink.
  • John King doodles on his Magic Wall. Drink one.
  • A network presents publicly available information as an exclusive. Drink three.
  • Hologram sighting. Finish your drink.
  • A Democratic dynasty candidate loses. This includes: Mark Begich, Jason Carter, Andrew Cuomo, Mary Landrieu, Michelle Nunn, Mark Pryor, Mark Udall. Drink one. Let’s not go crazy.
  • Democrats win a battleground state: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire or North Carolina. Finish your drink.
  • A winning candidate thanks God. Drink one.
  • A winning candidate thanks his or her big donors. Drink three.
  • A winning candidate thanks Barack Obama. Finish your drink.
  • An anchor or correspondent cites an obscure, “crucial” county that may determine the fate of a race. Drink one.
  • You’ve heard of the county. Drink three.
  • Because you’ve heard of the county, you know the person touting its importance just mangled its name. Finish your drink.
  • A Democratic pundit points to the history of midterm losses for a sitting president. Drink one.
  • A Republican describes a win as a “mandate.” Drink one.
  • Newt Gingrich uses an out-of-proportion superlative. Drink three.
  • A media pundit advises Obama to “hit the reset button” or fire people who were in no way responsible for anything that transpired on Election Night. Finish your drink.
  • A winning candidate praises an opponent that he or she has been brutally savaging for months. Drink one.
  • The number of American flags on stage at a candidate’s victory speech exceeds the number of Electoral College votes in that state. Drink three.
  • A winning candidate is not wearing a flag pin. Finish your drink.
  • The number of on-screen pundits discussing the political impact of the Ebola virus exceeds the number the Americans with the Ebola virus. Finish your drink.
  • Someone notes that there’s only 730 days until we do this again. It’s time to call it a night.

Feel free to add your own twists. Make sure to drink water. Don’t drink and drive. And remember: this is the greatest democracy on Earth, even though it can sometimes look like the silliest.

TIME 2014 Election

2014 Election: Four Things to Watch

Kay Hagan, Thom Tills
Sen. Kay Hagan, left, D-N.C., and North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis greet prior to a live televised debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Gerry Broome—AP

The keys to Tuesday's Senate elections, according to the two parties' top strategists

Millions of votes have been cast, the last ads have been cut, and there’s barely a household that remains blessedly untouched by the fight for the U.S. Senate. At some point, there is nothing left to do but wait. So with Election Night days away, the two parties’ top Senate strategists gathered Thursday in Washington to preview the drama that will unfold.

Much of the sparring between Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Guy Cecil, his counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, involved the ritual scramble to manage expectations. (Yes, we know both sides are optimistic about their chances—at least publicly, anyway.) But some big-picture themes emerged from the spin session between two parties’ top strategists. Here are four takeaways:

A tale of two frames

If Republicans retake the Senate, they have Barack Obama to thank. The GOP’s strategy in the battleground states was to make each election a referendum on the President, tying vulnerable Democratic incumbents to the policies of a chief executive whose approval ratings have sagged into the low 40s. “We have framed it through the prism of a group of incumbents voting with the President more than 90% of the time,” Collins said.

In contrast, Democrats have sought to localize these races, framing the contests as a choice between two candidates. “It’s clear the Republicans want to nationalize” the elections, Cecil said. “And it’s clear the Democrats want to make it about the two people on the ballot.”

Candidates matter

Inside the party committees and out, Republicans are gushing about their slate of Senate candidates this cycle. For the first time since 2008, no incumbent GOP Senator was toppled in a primary this year. That means no Todd Akins, no Sharron Angles—no challengers whose verbal missteps or outré positions dented party candidates up and down the ballot. “This is the best recruiting class in 30 years,” Collins said. Democrats are enthused by some of their recruits as well, especially Georgia’s Michelle Nunn, whom Cecil cited as the cycle’s best candidate.

And then there are the duds. Cecil called Nunn’s opponent, Republican businessman David Perdue, perhaps this year’s worst Republican candidate. Perdue’s competition for the ignominious title is Sen. Pat Roberts, the three-term GOP incumbent whose listless campaign cracked open the door for an unknown independent in blood-red Kansas. As for weak Democrats, Collins cited North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan as a candidate whose shortcomings were “hidden behind a big pile of money.”

The bellwethers say plenty about each side’s path to victory

On Election Night, Collins said, the GOP will be looking at North Carolina and New Hampshire as harbingers. Both are close states where the Democratic incumbents—Hagan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, respectively—have led the whole way, only to see Republican challengers surge at the finish line. In contrast, Democrats are watching states like Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and Georgia. Democrats are even or behind in all of those contests, and just one—the Peach State—is a pickup opportunity for the President’s party. The bellwethers underscore just how much the map favors the GOP this year.

The money involved is massive

The two parties and their allied outside groups have carpet-bombed North Carolina, forking over more than $100 million on the Tar Heel State’s Senate contest. More than $55 million has been dropped on Alaska, a staggering sum in a state with cheap media markets and just 735,000 residents. And if Louisiana and Georgia go to runoffs? Expect the two sides to shell out another $35 million to $45 million apiece, Cecil predicted, if control of the Senate hangs in the balance. The DSCC has already reserved $10 million in television time in Louisiana. Which means the ad blitz may not let up until January after all.

TIME Immigration

Immigration Advocates Warn Obama Not to Think Small

Immigrants And Activists Protest Obama Response To Child Immigration Crisis
Young children join immigration reform protesters while marching in front of the White House July 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

Reformers urge the president to sign an expansive order allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.

Immigration activists are ratcheting up the pressure on Barack Obama, warning the President that a failure to live up to expectations for executive action on immigration would jeopardize his party’s standing with the Hispanic community.

“We won’t take any more excuses,” says Cristina Jimenez of the immigration-reform group United We Dream. “What we expect from the President is for him to use his legal authority to enact a program that will protect as many people from our community as possible.”

Obama pledged over the summer to take executive action this fall on immigration in the absence of legislation to fix a broken system. That promise crumbled under political pressures, as vulnerable Democrats in red states cajoled the White House into postponing the move until after Nov. 4. Now, as the midterms draw near, some reformers fear they’re about to be brushed off once more.

As the White House begins to weigh the scope of executive action, the early whispers among immigration reformers are that Obama may fall short of the lofty targets the movement has set for him. The President is considering an order that would grant temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to a sizable number of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a step he could take unilaterally by expanding the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The overarching question is how many undocumented immigrants he will protect. The White House signaled over the summer that it could extend administrative relief for up to several million undocumented immigrants and their families. By delaying the decision for political reasons, Obama has nudged expectations even higher.

At a “bare minimum,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the immigration orders should include “an extension of work authorization to everyone who would qualify under the Senate bill and an end to the Secure Communities program and policies that criminalize immigrants. The President has the legal authority, the moral obligation, and the political capital required to take these important steps.” The Senate bill, which passed the upper chamber in June 2013 with 68 votes, would provide relief to some 8 million undocumented immigrants.

“This is an action that frankly we believe the President should have taken months ago,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “The president has broad legal authority to do this. It’s really about his political will.”

But there is growing concern that Obama may lack the will to make a bold unilateral move, especially if his party suffers sweeping losses in elections that were, in many ways, a referendum on his policies. Two anonymous sources cited by Buzzfeed, which reported Tuesday that final recommendations were being sent to Obama, pegged the number in the low seven figures. And even some of Obama’s allies worry that a President with a mixed record on immigration and an instinct for the middle ground will disappoint the Hispanic community once again.

“We’re definitely concerned,” says a Democratic source involved with the immigration-reform push, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House. “The history of this presidency is one of trying to accommodate the opposition.”

Timing is a mystery as well. The White House continues to say that Obama will act this year. But some in the immigration-reform movement worry the deadline could push once again. On Nov. 9, Obama leaves for a weeklong trip to Asia. The Thanksgiving lull arrives soon after. Then Congress needs to hammer out a deal to extend government funding, which expires in mid-December, amid a crammed lame-duck calendar. Executive action on immigration could throw a wrench in those budget talks.

Immigration reformers urged Obama to withstand those pressures. “Some might worry the backlash against a bold program will be too great,” said Hincapié. But that backlash will exist whether the President extends relief to one person, 1 million or many more. “We’re holding the president to his word,” she added. “There are no more excuses.”

TIME Crime

Ferguson Police Chief Denies Resignation Report

Protesters call for resignation of Ferguson police chief
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson begins to march with protesters before clashes led to arrests in front of the Ferguson Police Department, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. Robert Cohen—AP

Embattled chief Tom Jackson says he isn't going anywhere

The Ferguson, Mo. police department is denying reports that its chief is set to be replaced amid ongoing protests in a community bracing for a grand jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

“Nobody in my chain of command has asked me to resign, nor have I been terminated,” Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson told CNN, which reported late Tuesday night that Jackson would step down as part of a broad reorganization that would hand control of the department to the St. Louis County police. CNN, citing unnamed “government officials familiar with the ongoing discussions,” reported the move could come as soon as next week.

That was news to the Ferguson police department, which denied the report but left open the possibility that Jackson could vacate the post. “He has not been told to resign. He has not been fired. If he leaves, it will be his choice alone,” the department posted on Twitter.

Jackson did not immediately return a call or an email seeking comment on the report.

Officer Brian Schellman of the St. Louis County Police says his department is unaware of impending changes. “We have no knowledge of any of that,” Schellman says.

The report comes as the aftershocks of the Aug. 9 shooting continue to reverberate in the St. Louis suburb. A grand jury investigating the shooting of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, is expected to hand down a decision by mid-November on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson on murder or manslaughter charges. In recent weeks, the protests have regained steam amid a series of leaked reports that appeared to corroborate Wilson’s claim that the shooting came after Brown assaulted the officer. Local officials say they are worried about the protests that may erupt if Wilson is not indicted.

Jackson has come under withering criticism for his handling of the shooting. As riots roiled the St. Louis suburb in the days after Brown’s death, Jackson resisted the intense pressure to identify the officer who shot him. When he finally fingered Wilson six days later, he did so while releasing a video of an unrelated robbery Brown committed before the attack—which critics considered an attempt to taint the reputation of the dead teen.

The shooting released a wave of mounting frustration between Ferguson’s largely African American population and its heavily white government and police force. Residents have raised questions about what they say is a pattern of racial profiling and the Justice Department has opened a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson police department. Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who visited the troubled city in the aftermath of the shooting, has said his department is investigating the Ferguson force’s record of stops, searches and use of force against residents. Statistics indicate the police force has targeted African Americans at a disproportionate rate.

TIME ebola

Why Christie’s Ebola Quarantine Gambit Backfired

His attempt to force a nurse to stay under a 21-day quarantine didn't work out as expected

It’s never a wise move to pick a fight without knowing your opponent. When Chris Christie ordered a mandatory quarantine for health-care workers returning from West Africa, he might have thought his foil was a lethal virus or an unpopular president or some feckless federal bureaucrats who failed to keep Ebola from arriving in the U.S. Instead the New Jersey Republican found himself battling a brave nurse, who captivated the country as she skewered the policy from behind the plastic screen of an isolation tent in a Newark hospital.

Kaci Hickox won the fight. By Monday morning, she was on her way to a cozier confinement at home in Maine. And Christie was scrambling to explain why he had penned her up against the advice of medical experts, who said she posed no threat, and the wishes of Obama administration officials, who argue a forced 21-day quarantine could deter the nurses and doctors who are desperately needed to stamp out the outbreak in West Africa.

Christie’s decision capped a head-snapping weekend of walk backs from the New Jersey governor and New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo, his counterpart from across the Hudson River. On Friday night, the bipartisan pair held a hastily planned press conference to decry federal safety guidelines as insufficient and order high-risk travelers to submit to mandatory quarantine.

Now both governors have flipped, or at least softened a stance whose goal in the first place was to project toughness. Christie’s move to send Hickox home on Monday came mere hours after Cuomo’s own change of heart, announced at a strange Sunday night news conference in which the governor and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio referred to each other as “doctor” with barely veiled passive-aggression.

Left to scrambling to explain the decision, Christie denied it was a reversal at all. He said Hickox was kept in the sad tent with the portable toilet and no shower simply because she had no residence in the state. “Our preference always is to have people quarantined in their homes,” he explained Monday morning, “but you can’t take chances on this stuff and allow people who may, in fact, be contagious to be able to travel.”

The shift may have been more tonal than substantive. But it seemed like Christie and Cuomo had let politics trump policy, only to find the politics of the quarantine weren’t great after all. What’s more, the shift followed pressure from the Obama Administration, which warned the governors over the weekend of its “concern with the unintended consequences of policies not grounded in science,” according to a senior administration official. Hours earlier, Christie had slammed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calling its safety protocols for Ebola “a moving target.” Now he is letting doctors and federal officials determine that Hickox, who threatened to sue over the forced confinement, can be sent home.

The episode illustrated the unpredictable risks of playing politics with a lethal virus. In a campaign season that has been more fear than hope, Ebola becme the boss villain in the parade of horribles—from the rise of the Islamic State to the rocky economy to the “war on women.” Politicians from both parties have pandered to the anxieties of the electorate, jockeying to position themselves as tough leaders capable of keeping voters safe in the absence of presidential leadership.

The impulse must be particularly tempting when you face a referendum on leadership yourself. Cuomo, who is thought to harbor national ambitions, first faces a re-election test on Nov. 4. So does Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, another Democrat fighting for re-election who followed suit by imposing his own quarantine policy.

For Christie, the panic wrought by the lethal virus may have seemed a prime opportunity to run his favorite play: the one where the tough leader takes a common-sense stand in the face of federal dithering. This is the move that drew bipartisan plaudits after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey shore in 2012, and one Christie may hope will propel a possible presidential candidacy in 2016. The play has worked swimmingly when run against teachers’ unions, or bungling bureaucrats, or “idiots” loitering on a stretch of beach in the face of an oncoming storm.

It doesn’t wear as well when the target is a nurse who risked her life to fight a deadly disease.

Read next: Ebola Quarantines ‘Not Grounded on Science,’ Say Leading Health Groups

TIME ebola

Governors Spar With Feds on Ebola Quarantine Policy

Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, left, speaks as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie listens at a news conference, Oct. 24, 2014, in New York City Mark Lennihan—AP

Quarantine decision prioritizes politics over policy

The decision to impose a mandatory quarantine in New York and New Jersey for health care workers arriving from Ebola-stricken nations has opened a rift between the Obama Administration and the governors of those states.

Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York on Friday ordered doctors and nurses returning to be isolated for 21 days, the incubation period for the lethal pathogen that has killed nearly 5,000 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. That was just a day after New York City physician Dr. Craig Spencer, who had been volunteering at a Doctors Without Borders clinic for Ebola patients in Guinea, was diagnosed with the virus. He is in isolation at a Manhattan hospital. The first health worker quarantined under the new provision was the nurse Kaci Hickox, who landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday and is being monitored at a Newark Hospital. She has tested negative for Ebola.

To the White House, the governors’ decision represents politics trumping public-health policy. With voters spooked by the specter of Ebola and supportive of tougher measures to prevent its spread, Cuomo and Christie say they are trying to assuage panic and protect the citizens of their states. But health officials say that health care workers who follow federal guidelines pose no threat to the public. And they worry that a mandatory quarantine will dissuade desperately needed medical personnel from volunteering to battle the virus at the source of the epidemic in West Africa.

The dispute simmered over the weekend, as Administration officials pressed the states to reverse the decision. “We have let the governors of New York, New Jersey, and others states know that we have concerns with the unintended consequences of policies not grounded in science may have on efforts to combat Ebola at its source in West Africa,” a senior Administration official tells TIME.

Christie and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sparred over the policy on Fox News Sunday. Fauci, a top federal health official, defended the government’s existing protective protocols and argued that a forced quarantine for health care workers who pose a “vanishingly small” risk of transmitting the virus could be a disincentive to volunteers.

“The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those health care workers. So, we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go,” Fauci said. “If we don’t have our people volunteering to go over there, then you’re going to have other countries that are not going to do it, and then the epidemic will continue to roar.”

But for the governors, science may be secondary to politics. Polls show that many voters, in the grips of Ebola panic, favor measures to restrict the possible spread of Ebola, even those — like a ban on travel to and from virus-stricken nations — that medical experts say would make things worse.

As a result, Christie and Cuomo stand to benefit from going beyond the safety guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So does Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, an embattled Democrat embroiled in a tough re-election fight, who also ordered a mandatory quarantine of health workers flying into that state.

Like Quinn, Cuomo is up for re-election on Nov. 4. His Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, has sought to harness the panic to gain ground, pummeling Cuomo’s preparation for the virus as “gross negligence.”

Christie is positioning himself for a possible White House run next year, and his advisers believe that his confrontational style of crisis management underscores his appeal to voters. Picking a fight with the feds over Ebola, even when the science doesn’t support his position, may be a way to resurrect the tactics that earned him bipartisan plaudits after Hurricane Sandy.

Appearing on the same program as Fauci, Christie defended the mandatory quarantine. “I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” he said. “The government’s job is to protect the safety and health of our citizens.”

Hickox, the nurse quarantined in New Jersey, wrote an essay for the Dallas Morning News on Saturday that slammed the decision. “We need more health care workers to help fight the epidemic in West Africa,” she wrote. “The U.S. must treat returning health care workers with dignity and humanity.” She has hired a lawyer, who has been cleared to visit her in the hospital. The American Civil Liberties Union has also inquired about the state’s legal right to quarantine her given her negative Ebola diagnosis.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the way that Hickox has been treated “inappropriate.”

— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

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