Whenever I’m asked what the biggest surprise was for me in this election, I confess that there were several, but not many occurred on election night.
I was stunned by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s GOP primary loss, something I did not see coming. Further, one might have thought that a campaign that was completely unaware of danger during a primary challenge would not be able to turn on a dime to pull off a sophisticated write-in effort. But I was once again surprised by the Murkowski campaign’s ability to put things together in time to apparently win the race.
After Murkowski’s primary loss, all eyes immediately turned to Delaware’s Republican primary and Rep. Michael Castle. GOP strategists were in Wilmington within hours of Joe Miller’s primary win in Alaska. By the weekend, they thought they were safe, but a strong rural, southern Delaware turnout of conservatives won the primary for Christine O’Donnell, punting the seat away.
It became clear the weekend before the general election that a separation was occurring between the fight for the House and the fight for the Senate.
In the House, we saw a fully nationalized, parliamentary-style battle between the parties. In the Senate, we saw more of a collection of individual candidates and races that took on lives of their own.
The separation took what was a plausible but uphill shot at the majority in the Senate and instead gave Republicans a very good night with a six-seat net gain.
With regard to governors’ races, it looks like the GOP will end up with a numerically disappointing five-seat gain. However, given pickups in pivotal states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the quality made up for the lack of quantity.
My view is that governorships aren’t as pivotal in presidential election years as many others think. But for those in that school of thought, it was a devastating blow to Democrats in their math to get 270 electoral votes in 2012.
Much was written going into the election about the redistricting implications of 2010. Democrats suffered devastating defeats around the country. Republicans will have unilateral control of the remapping process in states with 190 congressional districts while Democrats will have control over no more than 75, depending on the outcome of some closely contested chambers.
Additionally, Democrats will be down to holding just 38 percent of the state legislative seats nationwide, the lowest number since 1956. This is the seed corn for the future; this is where congressional and statewide candidates come from.
The final surprise of the year was Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to run for minority leader once Democrats officially lose their majority status. I have to admit, I never saw that one coming either.
It would be wrong to blame Pelosi for the Democratic loss, at least entirely. In addition to having a horrific economy with withering unemployment, there was an enormous level of exposure for Democrats from having great electoral victories in 2006 and 2008. Misplaced priorities and strategic miscalculations made in the Oval Office were highly responsible as well. It is also true that the Californian is the most effective fundraiser of any House speaker in history.
Her critics invariably sell Pelosi short on her legislative skills, but she is as cagey and effective a behind-the-scenes political operator as there is in Washington. In some ways, she is the opposite of what some of her critics think.
But it is equally wrong to allow the phenomenal amount she raised for the party and House candidates to absolve her of any responsibility. No speaker or congressional party leader in history has been as thoroughly vilified in advertising from coast to coast as Pelosi has, and her poll numbers reflect that.
She became the face of the Democratic Congress in districts where the local members should have been. She became a symbol of the kind of coastal liberalism that the South, the Border South, the Midwest and the Heartlands rejected.
No Democrats lost in 1994 because then-Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, were controversial figures. In fact, they weren’t even that well known.
By election night in 2006, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, were gone and nobody lost because of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Beyond the symbolism and images, big mistakes were made and Democrats seem happy to blame President Obama and the economy and not accept responsibility for pursuing an agenda that turned independent voters, who had voted by an 18-point margin in 2006 for Democrats, to vote for Republicans by an 18-point margin in 2010, according to exit polls.
This huge shift from one midterm election to the next, by a group that constitutes 26 percent of the electorate, is seismic. It is not a matter of turnout or partisan intensity; it is a clear indication that Democrats alienated voters in the middle who saw an agenda in 2009 and 2010 that was quite different and much more ideological that the one described in 2006 and 2008.
For this, the bulk of House and Senate Democrats deserve responsibility but don’t seem to be accepting it.
Pelosi’s election as minority leader seems a forgone conclusion; if she wants it, she’ll receive only token opposition. The question is whether she learns to use her strengths as an inside player and avoid playing to her weaknesses.
To be sure, keeping a lower profile by doing pens and pads with journalists instead of press conferences and big speeches will diminish her effectiveness as a fundraiser. But it also means that she will be less of a burden for Democratic candidates in districts that they need to recapture to win a majority. Low-profile party leaders work a lot better than high-profile ones.
This article appears in the November 9, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.