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Messages Sent by ’10 Voters Weren’t ‘Either-Or’

As Republicans, Democrats and journalists discuss the meaning of this year’s midterm elections, it’s become clear to me that many of questions they ponder present false choices that obscure the lessons of Nov. 2.  Here are some of them:

Question No. 1: Were the 2010 midterms “about” jobs and the economy, or about the Democratic agenda of health care reform, cap-and-trade and stimulus spending?

Observers often feel forced to pick one answer or the other, when, in fact, the election was about both, but to different groups.

For conservatives and Republicans, the election was primarily about the Democratic agenda.

It really wouldn’t have mattered to most Republicans and all conservatives whether the economy was recovering. They were irate about Democratic spending, angry about the health care mandate, horrified at how cap-and-trade would affect many of the nation’s communities and convinced that President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were committed to a larger government, higher taxes and more spending.

That’s why conservative Republican voters were so energized on Election Day. Issues, ideology and the direction chosen by Democratic leaders drove Republicans to the polls.

But for Independent voters, who swung from strongly backing Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections to strongly supporting Republicans earlier this month, the midterms were much more about jobs, the economy and change.

Swing voters and Independents were motivated more by worry, dissatisfaction, fear and anxiety than by anger at the president’s agenda and the Democratic Congress’s legislative outputs. They were worried that the country was headed “off on the wrong track,” not that the health care mandate violates the Constitution.

Question No. 2: Was the election “about” Obama or Pelosi?

It was about both, of course.

Midterm elections are always referenda on sitting presidents, and in this case Obama’s ability to point the nation in the right direction. As the leader of the country and the leader of his political party, the president surely was the focal point of the election.

But Pelosi, the driving force behind the Democrats’ climate change bill and cap-and-trade proposal, had strong name identification, horrible “favorable” ratings and an image as an out-of-control liberal.

GOP strategists used both Pelosi and Obama in dozens of campaigns, including in campaign ads, and there is little doubt Pelosi was effective in driving up Republicans’ blood pressure — and in energizing them on Election Day.

Question No. 3: Did the tea party help or hurt the GOP during this year’s elections?

Tea party activists surely helped create an enthusiasm for the Republican Party, and their antics during the August 2009 recess and throughout 2010 put Democrats on the defensive.

But it’s also unquestionably true that when tea party candidates won Republican Senate nominations (and some Congressional nominations), they were considerable burdens on the GOP, even costing Republicans seats the party was almost certain to win with more mainstream candidates.

Rep. Mike Castle surely would have won the Delaware Senate race had he been nominated, and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton almost certainly would have defeated appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in the Senate contest in Colorado if she had been nominated by her party.

In Nevada, tea party favorite Sharron Angle turned out to be a horrendous candidate as well, though it isn’t clear that any of the other hopefuls in the GOP primary would have beaten Reid.

Early in the cycle, veteran Republican officeholders and strategists generally argued that tea party activists would be an asset to the party as long as they didn’t come to define the GOP, and that assessment seems correct.

When Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell became the Republican Senate nominees in Colorado and Delaware, they became the issue in their races, overshadowing the GOP’s advantage in both contests. And the increasingly apparent defeat of Joe Miller (R) to the write-in bid of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in Alaska is an obvious embarrassment for the tea party movement.

Elsewhere, especially in lower profile House contests and in strongly conservative (or anti-Obama) districts or states, tea party nominees rode the GOP wave. So the movement was an asset to Republicans as long as it played a secondary role in campaigns.

Of course, most tea party activists cared less about winning races than they did about ideological purity and selected candidates who were angry with the establishment. But that’s a different column.

Finally, thanks to multiple readers who noted that, contrary to an observation in one of my recent columns, newly elected GOP Reps. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Allen West (Fla.) won’t be the first duo of black Republicans to serve together in the House in 100 years. J.C. Watts (Okla.) and Gary Franks (Conn.) served together for one term in the mid-1990s.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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