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Not a Post-Mortem: Checking Debris After a Big Wave

John Peeler: The Republican takeover of the House was largely a matter of taking back the seats they lost in the last two elections, many of which are either majority Republican or conservative enough to have voted for McCain in 2008.

Republicans Take Back the Seats They Lost

election waves

After two straight electoral victories, the Democrats took a major hit on November 2. It’s important for Democrats to keep in perspective that it was bad, but could have been worse. And Republicans should (but probably won’t) remember that an election victory doesn’t mean blanket endorsement of their most sweeping demands. The next two years will be different, but hardly more pleasant.

The Republican takeover of the House was largely a matter of taking back the seats they lost in the last two elections, many of which are either majority Republican or conservative enough to have voted for McCain in 2008. A few senior Democrats went down, but mostly in conservative districts. The GOP majority will not be as large as the Democratic majority in the last Congress.

In the Senate, the Democrats managed to hold onto the majority by defeating Tea Party candidates in Delaware, West Virginia and Nevada, holding Barbara Boxer’s seat in California, and possibly winning (too close to call at this writing) in Washington and Colorado. They came close to winning the Senate race in Pennsylvania in a year when Republicans won the governorship and control of the legislature. But Republicans will be well-positioned for further gains in 2012, as the majority of Senate seats up that year will be Democratic.

Republicans also gained ten governorships and made significant gains in state legislatures, but failed to defeat Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Martin O’Malley in Maryland, lost to Jerry Brown in California, and came in third in the Colorado gubernatorial contest. The Republican nominee lost to former Republican Senator (now Independent) Lincoln Chafee for Governor of Rhode Island. Mark Dayton took the governorship of Minnesota after the departure of the ambitious Tim Pawlenty.

The Tea Party and Sarah Palin had a decidedly mixed day. Rand Paul won, as did some other Pallin endorsees, but as noted above, they also took some major defeats and may have cost the GOP control of the Senate. Palin faces a major humiliation if, as expected, Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign defeats Palin endorsee and Tea Party candidate Joe Miller.

It was, in short, a big wave, but not a major tsunami.

Obviously the poor state of the economy was the major driver here: if the recovery were energetic enough to be perceived by voters, Republicans and Tea Partiers wouldn’t have had much of an audience. Instead, many people paid attention to the new conservative orthodoxy of reduced spending and balanced budgets as the road to economic recovery. Anti-Keynesianism, once regarded as completely crackpot, is the new orthodoxy.

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In this environment of overwhelming concern for the economy, the Tea Partiers managed to contain the more bizarre elements of their movement, and thus avoided in most places scaring off moderates. Moderates in fact swung decisively to the GOP. Presumably they will want to keep the Republicans on a fairly short leash on issues like repeal of the health care law, where polls show support for most elements. Many moderates are deeply impatient with extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress (that’s a major reason why so many voted for Obama, who promised to get past all that). They may have little tolerance when the Republicans continue to score political points with their base at the expense of negotiating deals with Obama and the Senate Democrats.

Race, ethnicity and immigration were not the dominant issues this time, but the white population (particularly men) tilted heavily to the Republicans. White folks still matter! Blacks and Hispanics, as expected, went strongly for Democrats, but couldn’t overcome the Republican wave. Women split evenly, erasing the Democratic tilt of women in recent years.

Many of the defeated Democrats were Blue Dogs or others on the right wing of the party. Being relatively conservative may have helped them win elections in 2006 and 2008, expanding the Democratic base into Republican territory. But it didn’t save them when the tide turned and the GOP came after them.

The election is inevitably being interpreted as a rebuke to President Obama, and deservedly so. But Obama’s poll ratings throughout the campaign were only slightly negative, and were closing on break-even at election time. Republicans could easily alienate many voters if they appear to be focused exclusively on Mitch McConnell’s declared goal of making him a one-term president.

Advice to Obama: Republican overreach: wait for it.

Obama and congressional Democrats do deserve a rebuke from Democratic partisans for failing to deliver a health care bill that voters could understand and support, for presiding over a Congress that was utterly dysfunctional, and for failing to engage fully in the politics of defending themselves against relentless and often unfair Republican attacks.

john peeler

We hoped Obama would be a new Roosevelt. Now the only question is whether he will be Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University