The dust is settling on one of the most tumultuous election seasons in modern history. As both parties regroup and contemplate the election cycle to come, the slow week in Washington is a perfect time to reflect on the year that was, and the candidates, campaigns and defining moments for which each side should give thanks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
She may be one of the best Democratic legislators on the Hill today, and she deserves credit for the range and scope of legislation the House passed in the 111th Congress. But Pelosi is a godsend for Republicans, and her agenda served as the basis for attack ads that helped paint Democratic incumbents as liberal elitists out of step with average Americans.
Pelosi's decision to remain as Democratic leader will help both parties. No one can question her virtually unmatched money-raising abilities, so the Democratic campaign machines will be well funded. But the San Francisco liberal remains the most visible Democrat, aside from President Obama, and Republicans will use her like a lightening rod for another two years. By virtue of the district she represents, in the most liberal city in the country, she will be an easy shorthand for Republicans hoping to paint Democrats bright blue.
When National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said in early 2009 that the GOP would take back the House, Democrats were quick to call him foolishly optimistic. When Speaker-designate John Boehner said that 100 seats were in play as of May 2010, Democrats laughed derisively. Both Republicans were right, thanks to the national wave fueled by Democratic overreach and economic anxiety.
When a wave strikes, the party on the surf board takes maximum advantage when the most seats are in play. An early decision by top national Republicans to broadcast in a large number of key races around Labor Day put a much bigger number of seats at some level of risk. That's why Democratic incumbents such as Jim Oberstar, Melissa Bean, Bob Etheridge, Solomon Ortiz, and very probably Dan Maffei are looking for new jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Both Reid and Senate Democrats should be thankful for a campaign team that arguably proved the best of the year, and for an opponent who turned out to be one of the worst. As the Republican wave became evident, some top strategists privately held out hope for just two things: keeping control of the Senate and reelecting Reid. In the end, they achieved both goals.
Reid's strategy from the beginning was clear. He was unpopular, so he had to make his eventual GOP rival more unpopular. Democrats got lucky when Sharron Angle, the archconservative former assembly member, won the Republican primary. Reid got luckier still when, inexplicably, she didn't go on television immediately after the primary. The majority leader wanted to be able to define his opponent. Angle let him do so. That helped him achieve what so many other Democrats couldn't -- Reid made the race as much about his opponent as about himself, and Silver State voters picked what they saw as the lesser of two evils.
Aqua Buddha and Mob Bankers
One of the biggest dangers in a campaign is the attack ad, and the risk of going overboard. Press a case too hard, and voters begin to punish the attacker rather than the candidate being targeted. The key is to recognize when an attack is going too far, and to pull back before it causes permanent backlash.
In Kentucky, Republicans were beginning to worry that Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway was gaining momentum and taking the lead in the Senate race over GOP candidate Rand Paul. The contest was much closer than public polls showed, according to both parties' internal numbers. But Conway's late shot at Paul, questioning his commitment to Christianity and accusing him of tying up a woman and forcing her to worship a false idol, went way over the line. Voters didn't buy it, and they took their anger out on Conway, handing Paul a win, 56 percent to 44 percent.
Republican Sen.-elect Mark Kirk had the chance to blow his own lead in Illinois. Surveys showed that voters weren't responding to attacks on Alexi Giannoulias labeling the Democrat a mob banker -- and a failed one, at that. Instead of continuing to press the case that Giannoulias had ties to guys named Jaws and Rezko, Kirk's campaign pivoted to the economy. That decision helped him avoid falling down the same rabbit hole as Conway, and Kirk won by 2-point margin.
Republicans who gathered in San Diego last week for the annual Republican Governors Association meeting were thrilled to show off the new faces of the GOP. Govs.-elect Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, and Nikki Haley all deviate from the caricature of the Republican Party as one of old white males. On Capitol Hill, Tim Scott and Allen West, who are African-American, and Quico Canseco, Jaime Herrera, and Bill Flores, who are Hispanic, make the GOP look a little less homogenous.
The GOP has made no change in its platform to help recruit minority candidates. But senior Republicans, including Rep. Eric Cantor, in Scott's case, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in Haley's case, worked quietly behind the scenes to aid candidates who would give Republicans a more diverse roster. It is but a small step for the GOP, but it's a step nonetheless.
Even thunder clouds can have a silver lining. Imagine if Democrats had won the special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Imagine, too, that Democrats had somehow kept control of the House. The party would now have no concept of the voter anger percolating in the country, anger that threatens President Obama's hopes of a second term.
Instead, Democrats got a real warning with Scott Brown's early victory in Massachusetts. They didn't exactly take the hint, passing health care legislation a few months later. But the midterms demonstrated that the country is angry at Washington in general, and at Democrats in particular. That warning, if heeded, gives Obama's team plenty of time to rebuild damaged bridges.
The president's advisers have proven their ability to manage a political campaign. And with two years before Obama faces voters again, his team has plenty of time to turn back in the right direction. Indeed, in preelection interviews and in his postelection press conference, Obama has already signaled that he is charting a new course. Even the darkest of circumstances can have positive messages.
Finally, we at National Journal's Hotline are thankful for the incredible year in politics we've just witnessed, and to you, the Hotline community, for joining us. With another cycle already kicking off -- thank you, possible Senate candidates Jon Bruning in Nebraska, Connie Mack in Florida, and Jim Talent in Missouri -- we've got plenty more material to cover.