Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Gary Peters and gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Oct. 16, 2014.
Paul Sancya/AP

2016 starts now

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DES MOINES, Iowa – The starting pistol on the next election was fired even before the polls closed, as potential 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls began to spin the results in their favor and take shots at Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.

Inside the victory party here for Iowa Senator-elect Joni Ernst, the buzz had already started about the role Ernst will play as a likely kingmaker in the state’s critical presidential caucus. Some even said she might make a short list of GOP vice presidential picks.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul started a Facebook album called #HillarysLosers, featuring photos of the defeated Democratic candidates whom Clinton had endorsed.

Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses and has hinted he may run again, tweeted his congratulations to a series of victorious Republicans, including Ernst, calling her win “historical both for IA & our country.” 

The results were a shock. Republicans were expected to win big, but not this big. Here’s how it sets the stage for 2016.

Hillary Clinton: Republicans will try to paint the losses of candidates endorsed by the former secretary of state as evidence that voters rejected the Clinton brand. Paul’s anti-Clinton hashtag immediately went viral, earning endorsements from some prominent GOPers. That will be especially true in Arkansas, Clinton’s home turf, where Sen. Mark Pryor lost by a whopping 17 percentage points with 95% of the vote counted.

There’s little evidence to show that voters care about endorsements, but it’s a useful line of attack for Republicans. They pushed this narrative with gusto after a single congressional race in May, where Clinton endorsed a friend who lost, so the shellacking of dozens of Democrats across the country will only supercharge the attacks.

Some people around Clinton have long thought that Republican control of the Senate could be a benefit by giving her a clear villain to run against, and by making it easier for her to distance herself from White House. “If people thought we were fired up for her before, then look out,” said one longtime supporter Tuesday night. That’s especially true if Republicans overreach, perhaps by trying to impeach the president.

But the losses are far larger than expected, and are likely to rattle team Clinton as much as every other Democrat. If they don’t lead to a recalibration of whatever strategy is emerging, it will certainly lead to anxious calls for action from Clinton’s large network of advisors and friends. 

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Some have already been urging behind the scenes for an expedited presidential announcement, both to give Clinton plenty of time to build up her infrastructure and as a psychic salve for Democrats. Bill’s alumni network will gather in Little Rock, Arkansas this month for a 10th Anniversary retrospective of his presidential library, but they will almost certainly look forward to the next Clinton enterprise as well.

And more than 400 large donors to the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary are meeting at the end of the month in New York City with longtime Clinton strategists. There are rumors Clinton herself will stop by the meeting, but either way it will likely serve as the first unofficial strategy session of some of her biggest and most involved donors.

Elizabeth Warren Democrats: After big losses, parties tend to turn on themselves with infighting that can mushroom into full-fledged civil war. This happened to Republicans after 2008, giving rise to the Tea Party the next year.

Some liberals are already saying Democrats lost this year because they were too moderate, and a restive progressive base that has harbored doubts about Clinton may only get more aggressive. That’s especially true if Clinton moves to the center, as her husband did after Republicans won big in the 1994 midterm.

Erica Sagrans, who runs the draft committee Ready for Warren, said many Democrats lost because Democrats didn’t run as true progressives. “This shows that when there are candidates chosen by Democratic Party insiders…that strategy doesn’t work very well. Voters see through it,” she told msnbc, nodding to Clinton. “I got a text from a Ready for Warren volunteers saying, “Maybe last night’s results were enough for Warren to say, screw it, I’m in,’” she added.

The problem remains that liberals don’t have an obvious candidate to carry their banner – unless Warren suddenly decides to seriously consider the race.

Rising stars for 2016
The stage is already being set for a major battle in 2016.
Martin O’Malley: Tuesday’s results were a major setback for the Maryland governor. The hardest working Democrat in the potential 2016 field hasn’t been able to break through and had a rough night Tuesday when Republican Larry Hogan smoked Anthony Brown, O’Malley’s lieutenant governor and hand-picked successor.

It was an absolutely stunning upset. The state is as blue as it gets, voting for Obama by a 26-point margin in both 2008 and 2012 – except for the fact that O’Malley’s approval rating has slipped to low the 40s.

Brown ran on continuing O’Malley’s policies, so his defeat will be read as a rejection of the governor, who can’t afford a big loss. 

Chris Christie: It was a banner night for the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Governors were supposed to be a bright spot for Democrats on election night, but instead are some of the party’s most heartbreaking losses. 

In addition to Maryland, Republicans picked up key wins in blue states like Massachusetts, Maine and Illinois. And the GOP won the two marquee gubernatorial races of the cycle, Florida and Wisconsin.

Christie will be sure to take credit for these wins. 

Scott Walker: Two terms, three wins. The Wisconsin governor survived another tough challenge and is now even more battled-hardened and has even more wins to his name in the purple state. His 2011 confrontation with public employee unions and victory in a recall election made him a conservative rock star. Now he gets to have a second term to flesh out his resume. 

Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee: Santorum tried to associate himself with some wins Tuesday night, but social conservatives have faced a headwind in the party for several years and can claim few victories tonight.

Top-tier Republicans like Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst moved away from hardline anti-abortion stances, while the party as a whole steered entirely clear of same-sex marriage. Many Republicans know they’ll need to find another way to expand their support beyond a shrinking white, socially conservative base. 

John Kasich: The Ohio governor and dark horse 2016 candidate ran up huge margins in his reelection bid. He faced a weak Democrat who essentially stopped campaigning after a scandal – but the fact that he doubled his opponent in the key swing state looks good on his resume.

Joni Ernst: She’s gone from a one-term state senator to a rock star and gatekeeper in the country’s most important presidential state. Ernst is already being talked about as a likely vice presidential contender, and no matter what will play a major role in 2016.

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz: Despite their differences, the two conservative senators will both now be tested in new ways as they gain the majority in the Senate. How they conduct themselves could determine how well they do in 2016. Cruz in particular has relished his outsider role as rabble-rouser; now that he’ll be in the majority, the focus will turn to whether the tea party firebrand can legislate.

Mitt Romney: How did Republicans win so big in 2014 and lose two years earlier? That’s a question they will likely ask the former presidential nominee if he – or former vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan – decides to try again.

The presidential election has been quietly churning for months (Ready for Hillary, the pro-Clinton super PAC, started in January of 2013). But now that there are no distractions, the next race moves front and center. Next stop, November 8, 2016.

Hillary Clinton, Joni Ernst and Mitt Romney

2016 starts now

Updated