Overview: Three Different Scenarios for Nov. 2 Outcomes

Posted October 1, 2010 at 7:55am

One month before Election Day and this much is clear: Democrats will take a pounding when frustrated (and in some cases unemployed) voters go to the polls. Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans are unhappy with the present course of the country and are impatient for a reversal in the economy’s long, downward slide.

The question now is how bad it will get for Democrats.

So volatile are the times that evidence supports three distinct possible outcomes on Election Day. Democrats could endure heavy losses but retain governing majorities in the House and the Senate, they could keep the Senate but lose the House, or they could surrender both in a tide of voter fury that Republicans have shrewdly embraced.

What follows are three imagined views of these possible Election Day outcomes.

#1 Base Turns Out Late, Saves Democrats

Nov. 3, 2010 A frustrated electorate took out its anger on the Democratic Party on Tuesday, but voters didn’t trust the GOP enough to hand it the reins of government. Democrats suffered significant losses but held on to majorities in the House and the Senate and will continue one-party control of Washington for at least two more years.

With votes still being counted in a handful of races, Republicans are poised to gain four seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House, not nearly the gains the GOP was hoping for just a few weeks ago.

Coming into the midterm elections, a majority of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track — the unemployment rate was above 9 percent, and President Barack Obama’s job approval rating was mediocre.

But a late surge of Democratic voters boosted party incumbents. Heavy spending on attack ads by Democrats effectively demonized dozens of GOP challengers and made them unacceptable alternatives for voters craving change.

In the Senate, Democrats relied on their firewall in the West as appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) was elected to a full term and incumbent Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) continued their party’s coastal dominance by winning re-election, despite having very expensive and competitive races.

In Nevada, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was re-elected, in part because the Republican nominee was tea party candidate Sharron Angle, whom the Reid campaign found easy to paint as outside the mainstream. Still, Reid was held below 50 percent in his victory, an unmistakable rebuke for the party leader.

In total, after significant success in the primary elections, tea-party-powered candidates lost in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado. But tea party favorites Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Joe Miller (R-Alaska), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) won their elections and could form a significant new conservative movement within the Senate GOP caucus.

[IMGCAP(1)]Republicans won four Democratic seats while holding on to all of their own. Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) won in Pennsylvania, Rep. John Boozman (R) knocked off incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas, Gov. John Hoeven (R) won easily in North Dakota, and former Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana returns to the Senate after a decade out of office.

Lincoln was the sole Senate incumbent to lose Tuesday, but she was joined in defeat by two dozen of her Democratic colleagues in the House. In total, Republicans appeared to take over three dozen Democratic seats but Democrats offset some of those losses by winning five Republican seats.

About two-thirds of the GOP gains came in districts that Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) carried in the 2008 presidential election — places where the massive Democratic get-out-the-vote operation wasn’t enough to put Democratic candidates over the top.

Through the summer and fall, Republicans keyed on Democratic incumbents’ votes on the stimulus bill, health care reform and the cap-and-trade bill. But on Tuesday, there wasn’t a clear pattern to the Democratic losses when it came to votes.

Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Mississippi’s 1st), Frank Kratovil (Maryland’s 1st), Glenn Nye (Virginia’s 2nd) and Zack Space (Ohio’s 18th) voted against the final health care bill but were voted out of office, while Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pennsylvania’s 3rd), Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona’s 1st), Debbie Halvorson (Illinois’ 11th) and Earl Pomeroy (North Dakota’s at-large) voted for it and lost re-election as well.

With economic uncertainty permeating the American electorate, the GOP talked about reclaiming the majority. But Democrats turned the elections from a referendum on the direction of the country into a localized choice between the two parties and won enough district-by-district battles.

Also, conservative third-party candidates in several key districts siphoned off likely Republican voters and helped Democrats win.

Holding the majority is bittersweet for Democrats as they say goodbye to some veterans whose districts have long favored Republicans. Reps. John Spratt (South Carolina’s 5th) and Chet Edwards (Texas’ 17th) had survived past GOP waves, but they weren’t able to overcome the national mood and their local terrain.

As expected, Democrats won GOP open seats in Illinois and Delaware and knocked off incumbent GOP Reps. Anh “Joseph” Cao (Louisiana’s 2nd) and Charles Djou (Hawaii’s 1st), who was elected just a few months ago in a special election.

#2 Democrats Lose House, Cling to Senate

Nov. 3, 2010 Frustrated voters ousted Democrats from control of the House as the economy and unemployment dominated Election Day. Tuesday’s results were not a warm embrace of the GOP but rather a rejection of the direction of the country, and Democrats, as the party in power, took the heavy losses.

Democrats narrowly held the Senate, but Republicans gained eight seats, cutting the majority’s cushion to two. Votes are still being tallied in some close House races, but Republicans are poised to gain at least 45 seats, giving them a handful more than they need for control.

It’s the first time since World War II that the House has flipped control without the Senate changing partisan hands as well.

The Republican wave wasn’t quite as large as the tsunami that appeared to be building in September, but Tuesday’s results were a stunning turnaround from less than two years ago when jubilant Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House — and had a reasonable chance of expanding their majorities in 2010.

But as the economy continued to lag, voters focused less on the cause of the economic troubles and more on their current and future well-being.

Coming into Election Day, the closeness of the national generic ballot masked the Democratic Party’s challenge in competitive seats and in places where President Barack Obama was unpopular.

Democrats were able to rally an apathetic base, but not at the 2008 or even 2006 levels they desired. It was enough to keep the wave from turning into something far worse. But the party had a fundamental problem with independent voters, who went for Republicans by about 20 points in competitive races.

After losing more than 50 House seats in the past two election cycles, Republicans had dug themselves a significant hole, but it also meant the 2010 battle was fought in familiar territory.

The majority of seats won Tuesday night by Republicans were GOP-leaning districts that Arizona Sen. John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election.

Republicans won seats from coast to coast, but they did particularly well in the Midwest, picking up multiple seats in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Pennsylvania and New York.

In the last month of the campaign, dozens of Democratic incumbents were hovering near 50 percent or in the low to mid-40s against unknown challengers. Some, such as Pennsylvania Rep. Christopher Carney (D), went on to win in a McCain district, while others, such as New York Rep. John Hall (D), lost in an Obama district.

Throughout the campaign, Republicans keyed on Democratic incumbents’ votes on the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade and health care reform, but in the end there was no universal formula for survival.

Democrats offset some of the GOP gains by picking up seats in Louisiana, Delaware and Illinois, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the three dozen incumbents and 12 open seats they lost.

In the Senate, Republicans fell two seats short of the 10 they needed to capture the majority, but the results still represent a significant victory for the party.

Republicans knocked off four Democratic incumbents, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.). In addition, tea party favorite Sharron Angle dislodged Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) from his seat in Nevada.

Both candidates were very unpopular by the end of the race, but Reid was never able to climb out of the mid-40s and became the second Democratic Majority Leader to lose re-election in the past four cycles.

Republicans also picked up four Democratic open seats: North Dakota, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

While moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (R) won Obama’s former Senate seat, the next Republican caucus is likely to be influenced by a conservative coalition that includes Angle and five other tea party candidates who won Tuesday.

With the threat of a tea party takeover, Democratic turnout increased slightly and saved Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) on the West Coast, where Obama maintained a decent job approval rating.

Similar to past wave elections, Senate Republicans didn’t lose a single seat of their own. Voters simply didn’t hold the GOP responsible for the lagging economy and the direction of the country. Indeed, former GOP Rep. Rob Portman’s victory in Ohio proved that time had expired on the Democrats’ “blame Bush strategy.” Portman had clear ties to Washington and George W. Bush, yet he won comfortably in a competitive state.

#3 A GOP Tsunami Crashes Over Congress

Nov. 3, 2010 Driven by voter discontent amid a still-sagging economy, Republicans charged into majorities in the House and Senate in a historic midterm that made 1994 look modest. In one night, Republicans erased five years of electoral losses.

With votes still being tallied in a handful of races, Republicans are poised to gain a dozen Senate seats and perhaps as many as 70 House seats, giving the GOP close to double what they needed for a majority.

Right up to Election Day, Democrats thought their party base would rally behind Democratic incumbents and that voters in the middle would remain skeptical of a tea-flavored GOP. But on Tuesday, their worst fears became reality.

Not only did the White House fail to generate the 2008 “surge” of voters that vaulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but Democratic turnout fell below 2006, when the party had a common enemy and rallying point against President George W. Bush.

Independents voted against Democratic candidates by a measure of almost 2-to-1 in competitive races, and Republicans and tea party conservatives united to unseat the Democratic establishment.

With less than a quarter of the electorate saying the country is headed in the right direction, Tuesday’s results were a clear repudiation of Obama and his party. Republicans gained the most seats in the Senate since 1980, and their House total will rival the 1922 and 1938 midterm elections when more than 70 seats switched partisan hands. In the Senate, Republican gains were expansive. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon was the only Democratic candidate to win a Senate seat west of Buffalo, N.Y.

The Democrats’ West Coast firewall crumbled as dispirited Democrats failed to turn out, permitting Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) to go down in defeat. The East Coast wasn’t much friendlier as former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) defeated popular state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) in Connecticut’s open-seat race.

Republicans also logged symbolic victories by defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in Nevada and taking Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois. New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) held Vice President Joseph Biden’s former seat in Delaware by defeating tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell (R).

Tea-party-powered candidates were victorious in Colorado, Kentucky, Utah, Alaska, Florida, and Nevada and could be a thorn in the side of aspiring Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) next year.

For months, Republicans targeted Democratic incumbents in the House for votes in favor of the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill and health care reform. But on Tuesday, Democrats of all shapes, sizes and voting records were thrown out of office.

Republicans defeated more than 55 Democratic incumbents and added at least a dozen Democratic open seats to their total. Democrats knocked off one incumbent (Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana) and took over one GOP open seat in Delaware.

By Election Day, the House playing field had tilted so dramatically against Democrats that it became apparent that losses would be severe. Democrats held 95 of the 100 competitive House seats before Tuesday and lost more than two-thirds of them.

Republicans won races from coast to coast, but their Rust Belt rout secured the majority. Nearly half of the GOP gains came in the middle of the country, from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

In states where the economy is particularly weak, voters laid most of the blame on the Democratic Party as Republicans gained 30 House seats, three Senate seats and five governorships in just seven states.

Among the losses elsewhere in the country were longtime Democratic incumbent Reps. John Spratt (S.C.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa) and Chet Edwards (Texas), who had survived past GOP waves.

Adding insult to injury, Republican Tim Burns defeated Rep. Mark Critz (D) in Pennsylvania’s 12th district. Critz defeated Burns in a special election earlier in the year, and Democrats consistently used the race as a template for survival in races across the country.

Democrats were unable to replicate that feat as their spending advantage was nullified by voters’ distrust of the party in power. Outside groups helped sustain GOP candidates in the early fall when those candidates and the National Republican Congressional Committee couldn’t afford to run television ads.