Vol. 41, No. 23a
To: Our Readers
Special Post-Election Bulletin
The apparent Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress left Republicans stunned and divided, unable to comprehend that the nation’s political realignment creating a GOP majority had crested and reversed. The confidence that relied entirely on a generously funded Election Day organization now looks like arrogance. The party’s cocksure political mechanics simply could not believe the outcome as the results poured in.
Democrats capitalized on a mood that was not so much pro-Democrat as anti-Republican. Republican leaders are still in denial in the wake of their crushing defeat. They blame individual losing candidates for failing to prepare themselves for the election, but the real fault lies with the GOP’s Washington establishment, which played its hand at Republican governance so disastrously that by Election Day Republicans could hardly get a cab ride anywhere in middle America.
In contrast, the private reaction by Republicans was anger at President Bush and his political team. That includes a rising GOP undercurrent against the current Iraq policy.
Senate: Republicans apparently lost control of the Senate yesterday with a disastrous loss of six seats, far beyond what anyone had thought possible two years ago. Unlike the Republican loss of 28 House seats — which could have been much worse — the Senate loss was nearly as bad as it could have been.
Even in places where voters were willing to give their member of Congress a break, they were unforgiving toward their Republican senators.
As expected, Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) went down to defeat early in the evening. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) was also defeated, and later in the evening Senators George Allen (R-Va.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) suffered the same fate.
The coup de grace came when Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) narrowly lost his re-election to state Sen. Jon Tester (D) in the wee hours of the morning.
In Maryland, Republicans suffered a huge disappointment when Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) fell so far short of victory that the race was called on exit polling. Although many public polls showed the race very close, it turned out that our poll from the Braynard Group of pre-screened likely voters was the best one, showing Steele losing by 10 points. He lost to Rep. Ben Cardin (D), 54 to 44.
The failure of Republicans to put available Senate seats in Florida, North Dakota and New Mexico into play helped Democrats free up resources they could never have otherwise had to defeat marginal Republican Senate incumbents. In addition, Burns should have been talked into retiring, given his obvious vulnerabilities.
From a legislative perspective, loss of the Senate is less devastating than the loss of the House, because the Senate was not able to produce or pass most Republican legislation anyway. Filibuster rules in the Senate allow just 41 members to block almost anything, whereas in the House a majority is nearly always sufficient.
On the flip side, the loss of the Senate is devastating for any plans Bush had to install conservative judges. It could strongly interfere with any attempt to replace a Supreme Court justice, should one retire in the coming months. Rumors circulating in Washington about the health of Justice John Paul Stevens should not necessarily be believed, but it is not out of the question that one of the justices will retire in the next two years.
House: Our prediction of a 19-seat Democratic gain in the House was far too cautious.
- The true loss now appears to be approximately 28 seats, pending recounts and absentees. Of these losses, 18 were incumbent Republican members. This unusually high number of incumbent losses is very significant, because it is a true sign of a throw-the-bums-out election. Voters were not choosing against the incumbent party in open seats as often as they were choosing against the incumbents who were supporting President Bush and his policies. This happened in 1994, when 34 Democratic incumbents fell.
- Meanwhile, Republicans failed to pick up any Democrat-held seats — itself quite a rarity. They narrowly missed knocking off two incumbents we had expected them to defeat in Georgia.
- The most shocking part of it all is that the House Republicans ended up being lucky to get off so easy. This is the single bright spot for Republicans — if you can even call it that. The number of very close House races that tilted to the Republicans is a clear sign of how much worse things could have been for them.
Governors: Democrats gained six governor’s mansions, one more than was widely expected of them. The easy races were in Ohio, New York, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Colorado.
Democrats also narrowly picked up a governorship in Maryland, as Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) exceeded our expectations and defeated incumbent Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R).
In Minnesota, another close gubernatorial contest, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) narrowly survived a challenge by state Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch (D). In Rhode Island, Gov. Don Carcieri (R) defeated Lt. Gov. Charles Fogerty.
Tidal Wave: There is a more subtle point here that many Republicans probably cannot fathom at the moment: Republican and Independent voters were not going to be coddled by the failed concept of the friendly Republican incumbent who delivers government pork to his district and overcomes intense voter hostility by using the party’s time-tested machinery to get out the vote.
Republicans underestimated how bad it would be, but they continue to underestimate how much worse it could have been in the House. Their mechanics cannot substitute for smarts, but they may have saved several seats from annihilation. No voter-turnout program can save a candidate or a campaign that has hopelessly lost. But it can indeed make the difference in a close race.
Had the Democratic tidal wave come in just a bit higher, the bodies of scores of additional Republican members would have been strewn across the landscape. Among the near-hits (and apparent misses, as some races will go to recount): Representatives Chris Shays (R-Conn.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), Jon Porter (R-Nev.), Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), and several others. Republicans could have lost an additional 15 seats, or more.
President Bush: With both houses of Congress ceded to the Democrats, President George W. Bush is now officially a lame duck. His tax and entitlement reform proposals and the extension of his tax cuts can be considered dead on arrival. The level of congressional scrutiny of his every move will be heightened suddenly. His ability to appoint judges and cabinet members and successfully confirm them is cast into doubt.
Will anything be done in Washington next year? Can the White House establish a functional relationship with a Democratic Congress when it failed to do so with a Republican Congress?
Another question for the coming weeks and months is whether President Bush has enough ink in his veto pen — or enough will to wield it against the sort of legislation that may emerge from a Democratic Congress.
How did this all happen? How did Republicans go from their peak — a huge presidential and congressional victory — to a new modern nadir in just two years?
Scandal: One of the problems of holding a majority for such a long period of time is that members begin to take for granted the high life to which it entitles them. This is more the case in the House than in the Senate, where being in the minority does not make one nearly as powerless. The short version is that Republican House members began to engage in blatant self-dealing — bribe taking and influence peddling.
Meanwhile, it is only natural for at least one member to go down after some other personal misdeed, and three Republican members suffered that fate this year.
As an over-arching theme for winning the House, corruption was not terribly effective for Democrats this season — which is one of the reasons Democrats stopped using their "Republican culture of corruption" campaign mantra at one point over the summer.
But in individual House races, the corruption issue worked wonders for Democrats. Scandal is directly responsible for eight of the Democrats’ 28 gains in the House yesterday, five of them against incumbents and three in races for open seats vacated by corrupt or allegedly corrupt members:
- The scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff caught four congressmen in its cross-hairs: Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). On the Senate side, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) was also slammed for his Abramoff connections for several months, which softened him up in the polls and prepared him for the defeat he suffered last night.
- DeLay got the double-whammy of a politically motivated investigation into his campaign-finance practices, which forced him to resign from the House leadership and then from the House. All of these members’ seats were lost.
Personal scandals ensnared four other Republican congressmen:
- Former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), of course, was caught engaging in cyber-sex with former House pages. His seat was just barely lost, despite the fact that voters had to vote for him in order to elect his Republican replacement.
- Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) was confronted, in the last two weeks of the campaign, with a police report suggesting he had beaten his wife. Until then, he looked set to eke out a narrow victory. He lost to attorney Kirsten Gillibrand (D).
- Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) was sued for allegedly choking his mistress. This was already going to cost him the election, but especially when the settlement payout to that ex-mistress came, as a reminder of everything, just days before the election. He lost to former intelligence analyst Chris Carney (D).
- Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) was hit in the final weeks with a federal investigation of his daughter and suggestions that he had used his influence to obtain contracts for her firm. This destroyed any chance he had of winning what was already a genuinely close race against Ret. Rear Adm. Joe Sestak (D).
Iraq Drag: This issue played prominently in several of the Democrats’ gains in the House. It was crucial to state Sen. Chris Murphy‘s (D) defeat of Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), as well as the downfall of Reps. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.), Anne Northup (R-Ky.), Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), and both of New Hampshire’s Republican congressmen, Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley.
To some degree, Iraq was a factor in every race across the country, dragging down Republican numbers everywhere and throwing many races into contention that should never have been competitive. Nearly all Republican candidates were saddled to the White House’s Iraq strategy, which their opponents exploited at every turn.
Even in races that Republicans won, the Iraq Drag diverted resources away from places where they were more desperately needed, as Republicans struggled to salvage whomever they could.
Most of all, the Iraq War affected the election by neutering one of the Republicans’ most powerful campaign weapons. In 2002, President George W. Bush‘s active campaigning had been critical to Republican gains in both the House and the Senate. But this year, the President was radioactive, thanks mostly to Iraq. His presence was toxic for most of the candidates he visited. His last-minute visit certainly did nothing to save Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.). His late visit to Georgia was apparently not enough to put former Reps. Mac Collins (R) or Max Burns (R) over the top against Democratic incumbents. Nearly everywhere the President campaigned, Republican candidates lost.
Throughout the campaign season, many candidates at all levels found the President a liability. They strategically scheduled something else for themselves when Bush came to visit their states and districts. When Bush’s photograph was displayed prominently with Republican candidates, it was in a Democratic campaign ad.
Polls have shown for nearly a year that Americans are fed up with the lack of progress in Iraq and the continued deaths of American soldiers. The issue has already cost Republicans their advantage with voters on national security issues, and it has now cost the White House control of Congress as well.
Caught Off-Guard: Republican leaders, aware of the unfavorable environment this cycle, wanted to avoid having members caught off-guard by a challenger who could suddenly pounce and defeat them before they knew what hit them. They failed to save six of their members:
- Rep. Charlie Bass (R) of New Hampshire was supposed to win. We predicted Bass would lose based on late evidence that his campaign staff had neglected to run a campaign. At one point, volunteers gathered for a precinct walk, only to find that no addresses were available for them. At another, campaign staffers lacked even a folding table from which to pass out literature, and were forced to borrow one. The phone-bank operation was begun woefully late. The state party was furious with Bass for letting this happen. It had all the signs of an implosion. His 2004 opponent, attorney Paul Hodes (D), simply got the better of Bass, and he did it late.
- What no one expected was that neighboring Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) would be swept away by the tide. Former social worker and left-wing activist Carol Shea-Porter (D), whom the Democrats had hoped would not win the primary, upended him narrowly. Shea-Porter made Bradley sweat in debates over the Iraq War, and branded Bradley a rubber-stamp for the unpopular President Bush. Unexpectedly high turnout in Portsmouth and the Seacoast areas led to Bradley’s downfall.
- Moderate Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) had a gambling problem — not to say that he gambled, but he was the driving force behind a bill that all but banned gambling over the Internet. He was the victim of the so-called "Green Velvet Revolution," a campaign by the Internet gambling industry and gamblers to defeat those who pushed the measure. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) survived this campaign. Leach had had serious races in the past — most recently in 2002 — but he was apparently not ready for college professor Dave Loebsack (D).
- Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) had not had a close race since he was first elected in 1996, but he was sending up warning flags late in the 2004 campaign. The national party sent scores of volunteers to bail him out against self-funding chemist Nancy Boyda (D). He won by a comfortable, double-digit margin. This time, however, his luck ran out. Ryun’s failure to learn his lesson last time and solidify his standing in his district resulted in another last-minute cry for help that brought in President Bush. This did not help, and the former Olympian fell in a humiliating defeat in a district that President Bush carried with 59 percent in 2004.
- Those familiar with the downfall of Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) sum it up in two words: blowhard burnout. In two years, Hayworth went from supporting immigration reform to being a one-issue immigration crusader. But voters were not terribly interested in the former radio host’s bombastic immigration speeches, or his book — Whatever it Takes — a treatise on the need to secure the border with Mexico. Instead, despite the heavily Republican makeup of the district, Hayworth fell to the former Mayor of Tempe, state Sen. Harry Mitchell (D). Hayworth had at least some advance warning that he had a real race on his hands, but the early polls showed him doing well enough that we did not think he had any serious trouble. He did.
- Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) was known as a loner in the Minnesota delegation, not the sort to attend party events, and he was resentful after Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) appointed himself the party’s Senate nominee, but no one cared. Gutknecht was a conservative with a libertarian streak — a champion of prescription drug re-importation. He had not had a truly close race since 1996, when he won just 53 percent of the vote, and he had won his last two elections with more than 60 percent. He was the perfect candidate for a blindside from high school teacher and Iraq veteran Tim Walz (D). Walz had the backing of labor, abortion groups and the homosexual lobby. Gutknecht never saw it coming until it was too late
Ideology: Were Republicans too conservative for the nation? One could be tempted to say that Republicans were voted out because of their conservatism. But the House results suggest that this would be a mistake: The races of 2006 did not contain clear signs that America is no longer the center-right nation it was in 2004.
- Of the 18 or so Republican House incumbents to lose in 2006, seven (it could be as many as nine of 20 losses, pending two counts) were unmistakably moderate Republican members. Moderate Republican Representatives Sue Kelly (N.Y.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Jim Leach (Iowa) and Clay Shaw (Fla.) were defeated. Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) hangs by a thread, and the jury is out on Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), whose district was flooded on Election Day. Moderate Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) was ousted in a primary.
As a side note, moderates’ further problems in the 110th Congress are complicated by the retirement of Representatives Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). Moderate Rep. Mark Foley (R) was forced into retirement when his scandal erupted. This amounts to an enormous bloodletting for the moderate GOP caucus. It will leave Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the moderates’ leader, with a much more limited role in the House, even beyond the limitations of being in the minority. (Castle suffered two strokes during the campaign but was re-elected easily.)
- On the opposite side, Democrats cleverly recruited candidates who were conservatives or who would at least run as conservatives. This includes pro-life, pro-gun candidates such as businessman Joe Donnelly (D), who defeated Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.), Vandenburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D), who defeated Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), and former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler (D), who defeated Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), all as we had anticipated.
Also in this category are several of the Democrats’ losing candidates, who nonetheless made their races competitive and kept the NRCC guessing — including former Rep. Ken Lucas (Ky.), Lt. Col. Mike Weaver (Ky.), and rancher Scott Kleeb (Neb.).
- Democrats did not campaign on any clear ideological agenda as Republicans did in 1994. They cobbled together an agenda at the last minute, after their victory was already almost assured. Rather, their watchwords throughout the cycle were "competence," "corruption," and perhaps most powerful of all, "stay-the-course," an effective and derisive political phrase linking any Republican to President Bush.
- Republicans won the most high-profile competitive House races that offered a clear ideological contrast between the parties’ candidates:
- In Illinois, state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) ended the much-hyped candidacy of Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) after campaigning on a staunch conservative platform that involved life issues (including embryonic stem-cell research). He will likely join the conservative caucus in the House.
- In Minnesota, the uncompromisingly conservative state Sen. Michele Bachmann (R) decisively defeated child safety advocate Patty Wetterling (D) for an open seat by the same percentage margin than exiting Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) had defeated her in 2004.
- In Florida, businessman Vern Buchanan (R) appears to have defied the polls — and our expectations — by narrowly defeating banker Christine Jennings (D) after liberally applying the "liberal" label to her. This was, apparently, the most expensive House race in the country.
- There is also the counter-example open-seat race: In Colorado, former state Higher Education Commissioner Rick O’Donnell (R) was trounced by state Sen. Ed Perlmutter (D). But this race is at least slightly different: Republicans gave up early here because the district had turned much more Democratic since Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) first won it by a hair’s breadth in 2002.
Seeking Higher Office: Four House members abandoned their seats this year to seek governorships in their respective states — Reps. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), Mark Green (R-Wis.), Ernest Istook (Okla.), and Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). The results were disastrous, as all four lost badly, and three — all but Istook — saw their House seats go to the Democrats.
Only two Republican House members — Representatives Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) — ran for Senate. Both were crushed, but their House seats remained in Republican hands.
Louisiana-2: The first is for the seat of William Jefferson (D), who will face state Rep. Karen Carter (D), the second-place finisher, on December 9. The scandal-scarred Jefferson’s meager performance of 30 percent in the first round means he is dead meat in the runoff. Likely Carter.
Texas-23: The counting has not finished yet in this crowded special election, but Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) would have to increase his margin against his opponents’ overall total by 5,000 votes in order to avoid a runoff at this point. That appears very unlikely, although he will come close.
Running in his newly reconstituted district, Bonilla finished with 48 percent, and former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) came in second with 21 percent. Bonilla is better known in most of the district, and he will likely have the funding he needs, but the race next month will not be an easy one. Leaning Bonilla.
There is some silver lining for them, however, in an electoral confirmation that the embryonic stem-cell issue is not the political killer some say it is. But the momentum behind the issue of traditional marriage apparently dissipated in time for this election in some places, amidst public apathy and heavy fire from homosexual activists.
Missouri-Cloning: As we anticipated, Missouri voters narrowly approved Amendment 2, a deceptively worded amendment to their state constitution which prevents the state legislature from banning human cloning for embryonic research. The lesson from this amendment is complicated.
Embryonic stem-cell research is supposed to be a hugely popular wedge issue — the kind of issue that serves for Democrats the purpose that same-sex marriage serves for Republicans. It is supposed to pass on the ballot by far more than 51 percent, and it shouldn’t have to rely on tricky wording to barely squeak through. (The ballot language referred to it as a ban on human cloning, because it requires that clones made in the course of research must be destroyed and not brought to term.)
Talent certainly was not hurt by the fact that this issue was on the ballot. In fact, the "NO" vote on Amendment 2 outperformed Sen. Jim Talent (R) by tens of thousands of votes, receiving nearly as many votes as his opponent, state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D). Talent had opposed the amendment, but upset some of its opponents earlier this year by withdrawing support from a ban on human cloning in the U.S. Senate. This change of position came up as an embarrassment to him in his debates with McCaskill.
Abortion: In California, voters appear to have narrowly defeated Proposition 85, which would have required the notification of parents when their minor girls seek abortions. Voters defeated a similar issue in Oregon, Measure 43, by a larger margin.
In South Dakota, voters repealed a ban on most abortions which had been passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Mike Rounds (R). The ban failed by eight points, amid complaints by South Dakota residents that it contained no exceptions for rape and incest. The ban was meant to result in litigation that could have gone to the Supreme Court for a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade. Coming from conservative South Dakota, this is a major setback for the pro-life movement.
Same-Sex Marriage: Arizona made history yesterday when it became the first state to reject a ban on same-sex marriage. The homosexual rights lobby worked feverishly for this victory, but part of the back-story is that a court decision there had already established the illegality of same-sex unions. The initiative forbade all recognition of "other arrangements" as though they were marriages, and so the "no" campaigners told senior citizens — of whom there are many in Arizona — that their ability to give power of attorney and other rights would be endangered.
South Dakota, a very conservative state, only narrowly approved a same-sex marriage ban. The ban nearly became a casualty of the abortion measure on the ballot, according to those involved. Planned Parenthood and other organizations had such a presence in the state that some drag on the marriage amendment was inevitable, they explained.
Still, six other states (Idaho, Wisconsin, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Colorado) approved same-sex marriage bans — some by large margins — but they were not the silver bullet this year that Republicans had hoped after their positive experience in Ohio in 2004. With some exceptions, the margins tended to be much smaller. Most of the efforts lacked strong local support and funding on the state level. Moreover, the idea of a same-sex marriage ban is no longer the novelty it once was. Increasingly, voters take it for granted, and in the absence of a strong campaign, they feel less need to come out and vote for it.
The ballot measures may have helped some candidates this year — including congressional candidate Bill Sali (R) in Idaho — and this was a year when Republicans could not afford to lay aside any advantage they could find.
But same-sex marriage is not an issue that motivates only Republicans. In Southern Virginia, the ballot initiative may have brought to the polls conservative Democrats who supported the Democratic Senate candidate, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D) over Sen. George Allen (R). It may have also heightened black turnout, probably also increasing Webb’s support.
California-Oil Tax: California voters soundly rejected a tax on oil production in the state. Populist rhetoric and deceitful promises that the money would go toward alternative fuel production fooled only 45 percent of the electorate.
|Robert D. Novak|