When it comes to politics, Americans are romantics who idolize their suitors as candidates and notice their blemishes only after they are elected. Small wonder that “it’s time for a change” is an enduring political slogan or that the party out of power in the White House has gained in all but two midterm elections since 1900.
This year the change could be momentous. If the pollsters are right, Republicans are poised to regain control of the House of Representatives they lost four years ago, come reasonably close to winning the Senate, pick up a net of six or seven governorships and take control of 15 or so state legislative bodies. Statehouse results will have long-term consequences because legislative and congressional districts will be reapportioned next year based on the 2010 census.
“Change is coming for sure,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislators, or NCSL. “The question is whether it’s going to be the normal re-positioning that occurs in most midterm elections or a wave of the magnitude of 1994.”
That year, with President Bill Clinton in the White House, Republicans won the House for the first time in nearly a half-century and gained an astounding 500 state legislative seats.
Republicans hope for similar results this year, while Democrats insist that a number of GOP candidates have yet to close the deal. Privately, however, even Democratic strategists acknowledge that Republicans are likely to take the House. The Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to reach this goal; independent analyst Charlie Cook projects Republican gains of from 48 to 69 seats.
The Senate is a stiffer challenge. To gain control, Republicans need to hold all of the 18 seats they occupy — which they may well do — and win 10 of 11 Democratic seats rated as toss-ups. This is not impossible, says Cook, but “very, very difficult.” In pre-election week polling, Republicans led in eight of the toss-up races but trailed in California, Washington and West Virginia.
Republicans hold an overall advantage in gubernatorial races, although the Democrats have bright spots as well. Thirty-seven governors will be elected this year; the current breakdown is 26-24 in favor of Democrats. Republicans are favored to win 11 governorships now held by Democrats, among them Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats led in the polling in five states now governed by Republicans, including Connecticut and the big prize of California. RealClearPolitics rates eight gubernatorial races as toss-ups; five of these states presently have Republican governors.
Flying below the radar in the 2010 midterm media coverage are the legislative races that will determine who gets to draw the congressional maps for the next decade, Here, too, Republicans are poised for major gains. They are in need of them, for Democrats now control both legislative chambers in 27 states, compared to 14 for Republicans. Control is divided in eight states. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral Legislature.)
According to Storey’s analysis, Republicans are positioned to win one or both houses in 11 states where Democrats now control both chambers, among them Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. From a redistricting standpoint, the struggles for control of the New York Senate and the Texas House are particularly significant.
In the Empire State, Democrats won the Senate in 2010 after 35 years in the minority. Republicans, spending heavily, want it back. In Texas, Republicans are clinging to a two-seat majority in the House.
Texas is the biggest prize in the redistricting sweepstakes as the Lone Star State stands to gain four new congressional districts from the census. The best-case scenario for Democrats would be winning the Texas House, which is a long shot, while winning the Florida governorship, an even bet. Republicans have a long wish list that includes winning the House chambers in Illinois and Michigan. This would require a truly monumental Republican wave since Democrats have plus-20 majorities in both states.
Regional differences abound. Democrats believe they have a firewall on the Pacific Coast, staunchest of all in California. Republicans are running strong in the Midwest, where independents who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 are defecting, and in the South, where the statehouses are catching up with the region’s trend in national elections. Twenty years ago, Republicans lacked a majority in any legislative chamber in the South. They now hold half of the 28 Southern legislative chambers; Storey predicts they will control a majority of these chambers after this year’s election.
Whatever happens Tuesday, Republicans have made an extraordinary comeback from back-to-back catastrophes in the 2006 and 2008 elections. After these defeats, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Republicans were “like mold — not really alive but you couldn’t kill us either.” The speedy Republican political recovery is the flip side of a recovery that has unfolded more slowly than the Obama economic team predicted. Nearly 15 million Americans are officially unemployed and millions more have given up looking for work. Forty-four million Americans — one in seven — live below the poverty line and nearly as many rely on food stamps. Nearly a quarter of the nation’s homes are “under water,” meaning that they are worth less than their mortgages.
These economic realities have provided fertile soil for the Republican resurgence and the Tea Party movement. Economic downturns inevitably spawn protest movements that tend to vanish when prosperity arrives. That happened most recently to the Ross Perot movement of the early 1990s, although Perot stuck around long enough to cost President George H.W. Bush re-election.
Many of these protest movements wave the banner of limited government; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne traces “profound mistrust of power in Washington” back to the anti-Federalists who opposed the U.S. Constitution.
The GOP and the Tea Party have been conflated in the public mind because they share common targets: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus package, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, known by its many critics as Obamacare.
But as The Weekly Standard senior editor Christopher Caldwell has observed, a majority of the Tea Partiers are conservative independents who do not reciprocate the Republican embrace. For the most part, Tea Partiers recognize that the runaway debt that is a conspicuous feature of Obama’s policies had its origins in the George W. Bush presidency.
That’s why the Tea Party candidates challenged (and defeated) so many establishment Republicans this year in primaries. Some of the Tea Party victors have turned out to be capable general election candidates; others have not. Stuart K. Spencer, a premier Republican strategist for Ronald Reagan, believes that exotic Tea Party candidates, as in Delaware, have cost Republicans a chance to win the Senate while at the same time helping them to win the House.
In addition to the defection of independent voters, Democrats are also dealing with a mass desertion of white working class voters — the so-called Reagan Democrats — who expected more on the job front than the Obama administration has delivered. As The Economist put it, “White working-class voters are the quicksilver of American politics; they are hard to catch and hard to hold.” Obama had a tenuous grasp of this electorate even in 2008, when many working class voters favored Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The districts in which Clinton did best are now on the endangered list for Democrats.
A combination of the sour economy and a proliferation of independent expenditure groups have made for an angry and expensive campaign in which facts have been the first casualty. The debate on the stimulus bill has been especially hollow, with Republicans alleging that the $847 billion measure accomplished nothing while Democrats boast of saving millions of jobs. Economists agree that the measure created some jobs and enabled hard-pressed states to balance their budgets. But the low end of the Congressional Budget Office estimate of jobs created is only 1 million, which suggests that the Obama administration did not get much bang for its stimulus buck. Indeed, Obama seems to know as much. He acknowledged to The New York Times that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”
Obama’s refreshing admission ranks as a high point of this surly campaign. Another bright moment was the self-deprecating declaration of Sarah Palin at campaign rallies that she could “see November from my house.” Sometimes she says she can see 2012 from her house as well. Palin at least is cheerful, which is more than can be said about many of her more apocalyptic contemporaries on both sides.
But the cheering may stop on Election Day. If Republicans fulfill the expectations of the pollsters, they will share power and responsibility with Obama and the Democrats. Unless they deliver, their romance with voters could also be short-lived.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.