Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Tale of Two Nights

Tuesday’s election returns spoke volumes about voter frustration and angst. It mattered not which cable network you tuned in to; the news was consistent across the board. Unemployment levels hovering around 10% in the end became the ultimate albatross for the President and Congressional Democrats. Clearly, there were going to be casualties. The only question was how bad the bloodletting was going to be. To pretend that there weren’t profound issues with the way things were going, not only in Washington, but throughout the country was to deny reality. Sooner or later this check was going to come due. The witching hour came for the donkeys and it wasn’t pretty.

But while the House went down like a lead balloon, the Senate remained blue. The tsunami of “retaking” seems to have skipped over that body for now. While the GOP netted gains they fell short of their goal, which was to capture both Houses. Democratic wins in West Virginia, California, Colorado and (saints preserve us) Nevada denied Republicans their sweep. In deed, given the brash optimism of some officials, there will no doubt be more than just a few heads that will be scratched in the weeks and months ahead.

So what happened? Why were the results so schizophrenic? Why did one chamber fold up like a bad tent in a wind storm while the other stayed up? What I believe happened, and why I have at least a sliver of hope for the future of the nation, is that the Tea Party candidates, by and large, fell under an intense microscope in their respective Senate races that in the end proved far more detrimental to their election prospects than anybody had anticipated. While the House races, with a few exceptions, slipped under the radar – really, just try and name more than one or two outside your local district – the Senate and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the governors races garnered the bulk of national attention. As anyone who knows how both chambers work will tell you, local voters have far greater sway over their respective district races than they do over state-wide races. Hence the House, by far the more partisan body of Congress, stayed that way. Local candidates, free from the microscope of national press, were far better able to craft a message specifically tailored to their respective districts, without fear of consequences from other, less conservative, districts.

There was also the issue of Democratic saturation over the last two election cycles in districts that were historically Republican that came home to roost. Alan Grayson in the Florida 8th was a case in point. Notwithstanding the terrible campaign he ran, the truth was he was living on borrowed time. Even in a good year, Democrats would’ve lost at least 15 seats through attrition alone. And this was anything but a good year.

But the real story of this election is the double-edged sword of the Tea Party. On the one hand it energized the Republican base in a way not seen since the days of Reagan; on the other it caused many independents and moderates to back away at the last minute and vote Democrat. Losses in Colorado, Delaware, California and Nevada were owed directly to successful primary challenges by Tea Party candidates who ran far to the right of their seemingly more moderate opponents. Delaware was a case study in over playing your hand. There are few pundits who disagree that Mike Castle would’ve faired much better against Chris Coons than Christine O’Donnell. Coons, in fact, should send a thank you to Sarah Palin. As for Harry Reid, his supporters may chalk up his victory to a superior ground game, but, like Coons, he owes most of his good fortune to a vulnerable and fringe candidate who scared away as many voters as she attracted.

And the damage may not be limited to just Democratic upsets in Senate races. While Marco Rubio handily defeated Charlie Crist in Florida, long-time Republican – now outcast – Lisa Murkowski has apparently held onto her Senate seat. I say apparently because there will undoubtedly be challenges to many of the write-in votes she received. The point is that Alaskan voters overwhelmingly rejected the extremism of Joe Miller and sent a message to their former governor that was loud and clear. And speaking of governors, in California, Jerry Brown – an experienced establishment politician – easily beat out Tea Party millionaire rave Meg Whitman. Now Whitman, along with fellow millionaire and Senate loser Linda McMahon, can cry in their respective teapots.

In deed the only casualty for Democrats in the Senate that can be traced directly to the Tea Party was Russ Feingold. The three-term Wisconsin Senator was outspent four to one by his Republican challenger Ron Johnson, who not only got the backing of the Tea Party, but much of the establishment GOP. It was a legitimate blow to the Obama Administration, which had hoped to build a coalition among the Great Lakes states (Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio). With Feingold gone, his old Senate seat now in Republican hands and his good friend, Ted Strickland, ousted from the governor's mansion in Ohio, Obama’s 2012 reelection prospects just became more clouded.

And if you’re wondering about Blanche Lincoln, the reason for her defeat was based almost entirely on the unsuccessful primary challenge to her by Bill Halter, who would’ve done much better against John Boozman according to every pollster out there. Unlike Joe Sestak, who at least gave Pat Toomey a run for his money, Lincoln was mortally wounded by the challenge and was dead on arrival. Proof positive that the message Democrats should take away from this election is that running away from your record and/or apologizing for it is a sure fire way to get defeated. Somewhere in the White House, someone, hopefully, was taking notes.

But getting back to the House. There is no way to get around it. Tuesday’s losses amount to nothing less than a nightmarish scenario that will translate to stalemate after stalemate as far-Right Tea Party extremists, acting on the belief that they have been given a mandate by the people, will hold Obama hostage, attempt to undo virtually every legislative accomplishment of his first two years, and imperil a fragile economy.

So now what? A Republican House, a just barely Democratic Senate, and a socialist, Kenyan-born Muslim in the White House – or if you’re a progressive, a sellout corporate centrist in the White House. Pick your poison and buckle up. The next two years promises to be the ride of our lives. And it’s not even January, yet.

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