The Wave, and the Undertow

The 100-seat “super wave” didn’t materialize, and the Senate did not change hands, but it was a very good night for the GOP.  Some of the developments in individual states will have more enduring repercussions than the raw number of seats won and lost.  No election is an endgame.  Each victory is a prelude to the next election.  The nature of a free republic guarantees a national conversation that will never be over.

First and foremost, Tuesday night saw the ascension of two new superstars: Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Marco Rubio in Florida.  Paul’s victory speech was fiery and cerebral.  He understands the stakes, and he fights to win.  Rubio was humble and heartwarming, announcing the return of the Republican Party from a journey in the wilderness, and calling upon them to “be what they said they would be, so long ago.”  Together they described a party that knows where it has been, accepts responsibility for its mistakes, and understands the challenges that lie ahead. 

Rubio is a young, charismatic candidate who combines intelligence with emotional resonance, a warrior-poet with a red-state stronghold.  Rand Paul is a relentless inquisitor, asking questions that the Leviathan State cannot answer.  Allen West, also from Florida, is a commanding voice that will cut through the chaos of the coming years.  Americans weary of Barack Obama’s disastrous attempts to “transform” them will respond to men and women who look ready to transform the government.  

The realignment of individual states, such as Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New Jersey, will have lasting repercussions.  Some key states stopped swinging Tuesday.  The 2012 electoral map is turning the rich, feisty red of a cherry Slurpee.  The undercurrents of Republican enthusiasm and Democrat dejection detected in recent polls will translate into more than a large number of new GOP representatives.  They will produce more subtle, tidal changes in the political geography. 

Unless the Republicans self-destruct in the 112th Congress—which is always a possibility—the red wave will keep rolling. I think most of the new Republican electorate understands that the process of pushing back against the uncontrolled State merely began Tuesday night.  It will be up to the Republicans of 2012 to convince them it should continue.

I dislike our national obsession with superficial skin-tone diversity, but there’s no question the Republicans put on a very diverse face Tuesday night, and it will help them going forward.  Rubio, West, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott in South Carolina, Susana Martinez of New Mexico … minority and female candidates are prominent among the in-coming Republican representatives and governors.  They’re not just for show, either—they are among the heaviest hitters in the GOP lineup.  I believe this election will permanently sweep the “diversity” issue off the table for the Democrats.  They’re going to have a hard time peddling the myth of a racist, patrician GOP when Allen West is waiting to slap them silly.

The electorate demonstrated how serious it was Tuesday.  Candidates perceived as flamboyant or unserious did poorly, outside of California.  This was true of both parties: Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Alan Grayson, Charlie Crist, and Jack Conway all suffered from images of buffoonery or vicious, amoral opportunism.  O’Donnell improved tremendously as a candidate during her race, but could never escape the lightweight image with which she was painted.  The worst thing a candidate could afford to become, in this season of deadly earnestness, was a joke.

Sarah Palin did the GOP a lot of favors during this election.  She’ll have plenty of markers to call in, if she runs for President.  Conservatives4Palin put together a scorecard of candidates she endorsed, and it boasts a very impressive number of wins.  She poured her strength into crucial victories, including most of the people I’ve already mentioned, plus the likes of Renee Ellmers (NC), John Boozman (AR), and Kelly Ayotte (NH).  Dismissing Palin as some kind of fringe, “divisive” figure is transparently foolish.  She made a difference for a bounty of good candidates, who will make a difference for America in the years ahead.

If the primary season was transformative for the Republican Party, Election Day will prove transformative for Democrats.  Blue Dogs generally did not fare well … with the notable exception of Joe Manchin in West Virginia, who ran so far to the right that he should be jumping out of closets at the MSNBC haunted house next year.  The new House Democrat minority is more liberal than the one which set off the Red Wave of 2010, and so is their contingent in the Senate.  That does not position them well for the future.  The Republicans of 2012 will have plenty to run against.

As expected, this election was a stunning repudiation of President Obama.  Voting for ObamaCare proved as deadly as putting on a red uniform and joining Captain Kirk on a mission to the planet of flying telepathic piranhas.  The only House candidate Obama directly campaigned for, Tom Periello of Virginia, was an early casualty on Election Night.  Obama’s old Senate seat is now in Republican hands.  Presidents can come back from such defeats … but considering how many Democrats ran away from Obama to survive Tuesday night, the potential for a Clinton-style comeback seems minimal.

The Tea Party movement also learned important lessons Tuesday night, about the power of incumbency, the tactics of winning local elections, and the limits of surging enthusiasm.  Horrid creatures like Barney Frank and Harry Reid held their seats, despite months of soaring hopes they might be retired.  There really are “safe” seats.  Those antique political machines can spit out a surprising number of votes.  Large and well-funded party organizations, staffed with experienced professionals, can put together a ground game that astonishes well-meaning grassroots amateurs.  The heady rush of enthusiasm can still founder against the grim determination of entrenched special interests.

The influence of a grassroots movement is best expressed through a party structure.  This placement might mean accepting a few sub-optimal establishment candidates, instead of running an idealist who gets murdered by a seasoned pro.  There are reasons some of these characters have been lurking in the halls of Congress for decades.  I don’t mean to say that establishment types are always the right choice—some of them are dreadful, and a number of insurgent candidates did quite well Tuesday.  I would only suggest that grassroots conservatives learn to evaluate states and districts on an individual basis, and to make an honest assessment of the odds against them.  Be neither a slave to “electability” nor ignorant of it.

The elections of 2010 were a historic realignment.  Things changed forever.  Marco Rubio was right to speak of it as a “second chance” for the GOP.  What they do with their new House seats will be more important than the final tally.  In order to truly change the government, Republicans will need both the Senate and the White House.  If they use the next two years to make their case to the voters, from a platform of exemplary House leadership, they can get what they need in 2012.  A lot of Democrats thought 2008 was a permanent victory.  No one believes that any more.