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NJ Daily / OFF TO THE RACES

A National Election

November 2, 2010

In a matter of hours, the votes -- at least most of them -- will be counted, and we will know what happened. Some candidates will be rejoicing in the results but soon will be bracing themselves for the responsibility of governing; others will find themselves drained and disappointed, their influence diminished or gone.

My sense is that in the House we will see an outcome that is the closest thing to a parliamentary election this country has experienced in a half-century, a nationalized election with Republicans likely to gain 50 to 60 seats, and possibly more.

For the House, most voters will cast their ballot for either the red or the blue team, with the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and campaigns themselves subordinate to which party or philosophy they represent.

 

A leading Republican campaign consultant recently told me that as happy as he was that his team was prevailing -- and as great as business has been for him and his firm -- a bunch of folks who have no business being in Congress were about to be elected and would be very difficult to defend in 2012 and 2014.

This was also the case, I might add, in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, and it happens in every one of these wave elections.

Congressional Democrats allowed their leaders to become the face of the Democratic Congress instead of their friendly neighborhood Democratic member, something that worked against them in many rural and small-town districts. Never before has a House speaker’s photograph or name been used in so many advertisements in so many races as was Speaker Nancy Pelosi's.

Many of the key battleground House districts are in rural America, in the exurbs, the South, the border South, the Midwest, and the Heartland, and in districts where older white voters and those with less than a college education make up large portions of the population.

Senate Democrats have lucked out some. A few of their toughest races are in states in which it is easier for them to run, and that is enabling them to avoid the disaster that awaits their House colleagues.

Democrats can expect to lose six to eight Senate seats. Nine is more likely than five, and there is a small possibility of 10 losses. There is almost no chance that they can limit their losses to one to four seats. This is no bell curve.

The odds of Republicans scoring as big a win as seemed possible a month or two ago is down a bit. Once GOP hopes faded in Connecticut and seemed to diminish some in West Virginia, Republicans were faced with a situation of having to run the table -- win all 10 of the remaining states where they had any plausible chance of victory.

In two of those states, California and Washington, President Obama’s job-approval ratings are much higher than his numbers nationally. The Democratic brand is least damaged and the GOP brand most tarnished there, and that helps Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington a great deal.

Two races that appear to be on the tipping point are in Colorado and Nevada, where Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Harry Reid, respectively, are fighting for their political lives.

Although in the end it looks more likely than not that Republicans will prevail in Illinois and Pennsylvania, Democrats have battled ferociously in both states and could possibly hold on to one seat or the other.

The seeds for these losses were sown early last year, and the danger signs began emerging over the summer of 2009, particularly after the House voted for legislation aimed at climate change.

Things escalated dramatically as Obama and congressional Democratic leaders concentrated on overhauling the health care system. Voters wanted Washington, to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton when he ran for president in 1992, to “focus on the economy like a laser beam.” They got the laser-beam focus; it just wasn’t on the economy.

This is not to be dismissive of the substantive disagreements that many Americans had with key elements of the Democratic agenda. Republicans and conservatives predictably opposed much of what Democrats promoted, but independents soon followed.

Just as 9/11 was a watershed moment, so was the economic crisis of September 2008. Since then, U.S. consumers have been spending less, saving more, paying down their debt, and becoming more conservative in their investments. Many independents seem to be thinking that government should follow suit and trim its sails.

Republicans should consider this an unearned victory. They won much more for who they weren’t than for who they were.

It’s pretty safe to say that this is the first time that either party has won a tidal-wave election despite having higher negative ratings than positive numbers. People were more upset with the party in power than they were with the party that had squandered so much previously. But just as Democrats misread their mandate in 2008, Republicans may well do that now.

The question coming out of this election will be: How will the 40 percent or so of Americans who identify themselves as independents see each party and the president over the next two years.

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