The results of this year’s elections gave commentators’ vocabularies a workout. Democrats were swept away by a Republican tidal wave or, better yet, a tsunami. Their candidates were slaughtered in a bloodbath. Or, as President Obama put it, they took a shellacking. Whatever one’s choice of words, the Democrats suffered significant losses in almost every part of the country and at every level of government.
Republicans scored their most dramatic victory in the House of Representatives, gaining at least 63 seats, more than enough to reverse their setbacks in the last two congressional elections and retake control after four years out of power. House Democrats suffered particularly heavy losses in the swath from New York across the upper Midwest. They also lost seats throughout the South and in rural and suburban areas across the country where they had made recent gains.
Powerful Democratic committee chairs were vanquished along with newcomers. And, although many blamed President Obama’s policies for the losses, members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, who frequently opposed his administration, lost catastrophically, holding just 26 of 54 seats.
How did the GOP do it? According to Republican consultant Whit Ayres, the key was capitalizing on independent voters’ distaste for Obama administration policies such as increased deficit spending, the auto bailout, the stimulus and health care reform.
“Those policies drove independents into the waiting arms of Republicans,” Ayres notes, citing polling data that found independents abandoning Democrats and embracing Republicans as early as mid-2009.
By keeping the focus on what independents didn’t like about Democrats, the GOP maintained an advantage with the key group through November, winning the independent vote by 17 points according to exit polls. “The overall strategy was exactly right, which was to point a spotlight on Democratic overspending, lack of fiscal discipline and inability to turn the economy around,” adds Ayres.
On the Democratic side, veteran consultant Bob Shrum says his party’s message that voting in Republicans would equal a return to Bush-era policies was not strong enough to forestall massive losses. “People didn’t want to go back to Bush,” he says, “but when you talk about going back, a lot of people say, ‘Well, I kind of liked it when there was full employment, my 401K and house were worth something and I wasn’t afraid of losing my job.’” Far better for the Democrats, Shrum argues, would have been to play to their base by tackling “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the Bush tax cuts and immigration reform before the election. “We lost 20-something seats in the House by less than two percent,” he says. “If there had been a greater effort to motivate the base and turn out voters, we would have saved at least some of them.”
The Democrats’ loss of six Senate seats was modest by comparison, leaving them with a 53- seat majority including two independents. Republicans narrowly took President Obama’s old Illinois Senate seat, while Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada fended off Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. Tea Party–backed candidates also faltered in Delaware and Alaska, but triumphed in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Shrum attributes the failure of some Senate Tea Party candidates to the amount of attention they received. “One thing that helped the Tea Party candidates in House contests was that they didn’t get the same level of visibility that a Sharron Angle did or a Christine O’Donnell did or a Ken Buck did in Colorado,” he says. “And that level of visibility was not helpful to the Tea Party candidates.”
Ayres, on the other hand, sees the Tea Party as key to the breadth of GOP gains. “Hundreds of Republican candidates around the country, from the Senate all the way down to state legislative races, won their seats with higher Republican turnout that was assisted very significantly by Tea Party voters,” he says. “The old dictum that all politics is local certainly did not describe the outcome of the 2010 election.”
Indeed, Republicans made less visible but potentially more consequential gains on the state level. They won 11 governorships formerly held by Democrats, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democrats in turn took back California and hold a slim lead in Minnesota, which is headed for a recount. Republicans made great inroads in state legislatures, taking complete control in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. These gains put the GOP in a prime position to influence the redrawing of House districts next year, which islikely to translate to an advantage in congressional elections throughout the coming decade.
There were a few other bright spots for Democrats. They pulled out close Senate victories in Colorado and Washington. They fought off self-funded candidates with extremely deep pockets in the races for Connecticut senator and California governor. In the latter, retired eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent a record $175 million to lose by 11 points. And Massachusetts, which shocked the nation by electing Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in January, was swept by Democrats. The party comfortably held all ten House seats and the governorship. Even Martha Coakley, who lost to Brown, won another term as attorney general by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Small solace, perhaps, but when a party has just been slaughtered and shellacked, it’ll take any solace it can get.
Daniel Weiss is Managing Editor of Campaigns & Elections