Politics & Policy

Ten Mysteries of 2010

Why was the GOP aced out in Massachusetts and Connecticut? How did Blago’s right-hand man win in Illinois? And eight other unanswered questions.

With only a handful of House races still being sorted out, the 2010 midterm elections are now almost entirely settled. And yet, despite all the vote totals, exit polls, and other data we have received, we’re left with some results that are almost maddening.

1. The New England doldrums: New Hampshire is back to being a GOP-leaning state, with Kelly Ayotte taking the Senate race and Republicans winning back both House seats, which they had lost in 2006. And Maine’s governor-elect, Paul LePage, is one of the cycle’s least-expected winners. But beyond that, few Republicans even came close in the New England states, despite a big surge in enthusiasm and various indicators of good news. In late polls, both House seats in Maine appeared competitive, but Republicans lost both by double digits. Connecticut’s 4th and 5th Congressional Districts had a similar story: Surveys showed GOP challengers coming on strong at the end, only to finish six and eight percentage points behind, respectively.

And then there’s Massachusetts. Perhaps defeating Barney Frank was a dream, but Jeff Perry finished an agonizing 4.5 percentage points short in an open-seat House race in the most GOP-friendly district in the state. Needless to say, the rest of Massachusetts was even worse for the party. In almost every state, conservatives had something to cheer about on November 3, but in Massachusetts they could only stare in disbelief as voters reelected almost every incumbent in a year that was heavily anti-incumbent nationwide.

Ten months after Scott Brown, in a region with high unemployment, Republicans fell short in race after race. If the GOP can’t win in New England in a year like this, will they ever?

2. New York’s top-of-the-ticket boomerang: All year long, I lamented that a slew of promising candidates for the House were getting no help from the top of the ticket in the Empire State, where the governor’s race and both Senate races (the second was a special election in which the incumbent, Kirsten Gillibrand, had been appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat) were set to be Democratic landslides. At least four and perhaps six Republican House challengers proved they didn’t need top-of-the-ticket help. In retrospect, Democrats are probably wondering whether competitive races might have helped drive turnout on their side.

In 2012, Obama will probably increase turnout among blacks and young voters. Can Republicans keep the seats they just won narrowly, and could they grab a few that they narrowly missed this time, like Maurice Hinchey’s in the 22nd district and Bill Owens’s in the 23rd?

3. The wave that skipped the House races in North Carolina: How did Republicans win only one of four competitive House races — Renee Ellmers still has to survive a recount effort from the trailing Democratic incumbent, Bob Etheridge — while Richard Burr won the Senate race by twelve points and Republicans won sweeping gains in both the state house and the state senate? What put voters in a distinctly pro-Republican mood, but let them decide to keep Democratic incumbents Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, and Heath Shuler in office for another term? Above all, how did these Democrats hang on in districts that are R+5, R+2, and R+6?

4. The reverse Blago effect: Illinois is another state that offered some counterintuitive results. In the first major general election since the Rod Blagojevich scandal, one expected the voters of Illinois, beleaguered and fed up, to take out their frustration on Blago’s right-hand man, Pat Quinn, the lieutenant governor who was sworn in as governor after his chief was convicted. If Republicans would underperform in any races, it would be the U.S. House and Senate races, right?

Completely the other way, it turns out. The GOP cleaned up in the House races: Randy Hultgren beat Bill Foster, Adam Kinzinger beat Debbie Halvorson, and Bobby Schilling beat Phil Hare, all by healthy margins, while Joe Walsh is hanging onto his lead against Melissa Bean; meanwhile, Mark Kirk emerged with a hard-fought win in the Senate race. What’s more, the GOP gained six seats in the Illinois house and two in the senate. But by 19,000 votes, voters chose Pat Quinn over challenger Bill Brady. How did Republicans win so many races here but lose the seat previously occupied by the most infamous politician in America?

5. Everything’s bigger in Texas: When Republicans in the Sunshine State carried the governor’s race and the Senate race, and picked up four U.S. House seats, one election observer quipped, “Florida is the new Texas.” If that’s the case, then Texas is the new Wyoming.

Forget that the Democratic comeback in Texas gubernatorial politics is like Godot; the return is often loudly heralded as imminent but never seems to arrive. This year Republicans picked up two or three U.S. House seats, defeating at least one and perhaps two Hispanic Democrats in majority-minority districts. Francisco Canseco beat Ciro Rodriguez in the 23rd District (65 percent Hispanic) and Blake Farenthold leads Solomon Ortiz in the 27th District (71 percent Hispanic), pending the outcome of a recount. When Republicans can beat Hispanic Democrats in majority-minority districts, suddenly a slew of once-safe seats start to look competitive in the coming cycles. What’s more, a huge wave carried Republicans to a massive majority in the state house. After the 2008 election, the Republicans led 77 seats to 73; it is now 91 to 51. There wasn’t a single Democratic pickup. In the state senate, the GOP has 19 seats to the Democrats’ 12. 

Is Texas already gerrymandered for maximum GOP gain, or could some of the state’s nine remaining Democrats in the U.S. House find themselves in tougher districts next cycle?

(If Texas is the new Wyoming, I don’t know what Wyoming is now.)

6. The key swing state is the land of the cheeseheads: For many years, Wisconsin flirted with Republicans but ultimately voted for Democrats. The Bush campaign thought it had a shot there in 2000 and 2004, as did McCain in 2008, at least for a while. Then this year, it seemed that a decade’s worth of pent-up GOP fervor exploded at the ballot box: big wins for Ron Johnson in the Senate race and Scott Walker in the governor’s race, and decisive House wins for Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble. Beginning next year, the GOP will control the state senate 19–14, and the assembly 59–38, as the results stand now, with one race still too close to call. Democrats saw their senate majority leader and assembly speaker voted out of office.

For the first time in a long time, Republicans will run the show in Wisconsin. If their decisions please the electorate, could this state slip out of its habit of voting for Democrats in presidential elections? The last Republican to carry Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

7. Arizona’s escapees: It was a great year for Arizona Republicans, but the narrow victories of incumbent Democrats Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords — in the two border districts, no less! — are irksome. Was the 2010 GOP wave in this state a one-time phenomenon because of the Department of Justice suit against Arizona? Or will these two surviving Democrats find that the Obama administration is a lingering dead weight on their next reelection bids?

8. Can the GOP ever win an election that isn’t settled Election Night? Four House races have been settled since Election Day: Arizona’s 7th and 8th, Washington’s 2nd, and Virginia’s 11th. In all of them, the Democrat won. One doesn’t want to feed paranoia, but one would expect close races to split closer to 50–50, no? Instead, with seven seats still being sorted out, the odd incidents pile up: A bag of uncounted ballots is found in Texas. Someone is calling absentee voters in New York’s 25th. As these last races are settled, we will see if the Democrats’ strange “luck” continues.

9. Second time around? A slew of Democrats who won election to the U.S. House in 2006 — Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, Jerry McNerney in California, Joe Courtney in Connecticut, Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill in Indiana, Nancy Boyda in Kansas, Paul Hodes in New Hampshire — had run before and lost; their victories came on the second or third try. The 2010 cycle saw plenty of promising Republican House candidates fall a little short: Mike Keown in Georgia’s 2nd, Jackie Walorski in Indiana’s 2nd, George Phillips in New York’s 22nd, and Scott Bruun in Oregon’s 5th, plus all the candidates who came a few hundred votes short in the close races mentioned above. Will these candidates be up for a rematch in 2012? Or would the GOP be better off with new blood?

10. Really, South Carolina! What the hell is wrong with 28 percent of your voters? An astounding 358,276 of you voted for Alvin Greene. In fact, according to exit polls, 2 percent of South Carolina Republicans voted for Alvin Greene. That was a joke, right? Did these Republicans know they were casting actual votes?

WRAPPING UP

One clear lesson from the 2010 results is that the red-state/blue-state divide established at the beginning of the decade is stronger than ever — the red states turned redder, while many blue states barely budged in a big Republican year. Self-financing Republicans on the coasts spent fortunes only to fall short, while the GOP largely wiped out long-serving Democrats who had hung on in heavily conservative regions of the country: Chet Edwards in Texas, John Spratt in South Carolina, Gene Taylor in Mississippi, Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota. The upper Midwest has reasserted itself as the true, classic swing region, shifting heavily to the Republicans, at least for now. The Obama wave receded from Ohio, Indiana, Florida, and Nevada. But as spectacular as the 2010 results are for Republicans, they learned in this cycle that even in a very favorable national environment, they really aren’t able to get a hold on heavily Democratic turf on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

If the map remains the same two years from now, the 2012 Electoral College breakdown will probably look more like the ones from 2000 and 2004 than the one from 2008. That shouldn’t give the Republican nominee too much comfort, though; neither of Bush’s wins left much room for error.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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