With one Republican bastion after another falling as returns poured in for Democrats Tuesday night, the GOP’s carefully constructed defenses crumbled. The party’s barriers failed to prevent the election from being a referendum on Iraq, George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. It was a failure of concept as well as execution.
That failed concept relied on friendly, familiar Republican incumbents, who had delivered government pork for their district, negating intense voter hostility by using the party’s time-tested machinery to get out its vote. These tactics proved useless in the face of a wave that was not so much pro-Democrat as it was anti-Republican. Only gerrymandered House districts prevented a landslide that would have given the Democrats a House majority of historic proportions, approaching 50 seats.
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 on generously funded Election Day organization now looks like mindless arrogance. The party’s cocksure political mechanics simply could not believe the outcome as the results poured in.
Even up to the last minute, the Republicans never really saw overall defeat coming. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina used a golfer’s language in telling me last July that his colleagues failed to appreciate how close the Republicans were to losing control of the Senate: "It’s like we think we’ll get by with pars on the last two holes when we really need birdies," he said then. On Wednesday, Graham told me: "Actually, we bogeyed the 17th hole and picked up on the 18th."
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. In contrast, the private reaction by the candidates was anger at President Bush and his political team. That includes a rising GOP undercurrent against Iraq policy. The unpleasant truth is that Republicans lost almost everywhere the president campaigned during the past week. An exception was Florida, where State Attorney General Charlie Crist kept out of Bush’s way and won the election for governor.
The bellwether of defeats to come was the Louisville, Ky., district where the respected Rep. Anne Northup, who won 60 percent of the vote two years ago, was defeated for a sixth term. There was nothing she had done wrong or that her opponent had done right to cause her defeat. The same was true of other highly regarded Republican congressional veterans who were defeated Tuesday, headed by Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Clay Shaw of Florida and Jim Leach of Iowa.
Exit polls confirmed what had been clear to anyone who spent any time on the campaign circuit this year. Opposition to the war and the president had produced a virulent anti-Republican mood. About two weeks before the election, political technicians running the campaign of Rep. Charles Bass in New Hampshire suddenly realized that the popular six-termer was in deep trouble. His moderate voting and record of pork-delivery (including a federal prison for his district) meant nothing. He was swept under by the anti-Iraq voting tide.
Bass at least had some warning. New Hampshire’s other House member, Rep. Jeb Bradley, won with 63 percent of the vote in 2004 and never felt threatened this year until the results came in. This was a nationalized election about Iraq where individual characteristics did not count.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, a stalwart of the famous Republican class of ’94, did not seem seriously endangered until word came back to Washington election morning that he looked like a loser. Representing a district that is not as Republican as it used to be, Hayworth had become an enforcement-only immigration hard-liner. It did not help him at the polls.
Sen. John McCain, the putative front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, reacted to defeat with the typically blunt comment that his party had lost its way with earmarked pork barrel spending. If party leaders in Congress at long last heed McCain’s counsel, it would mark the beginning of wisdom.