As Predicted, a Wave Washes Republicans Out to Sea

by Stuart Rothenberg November 12, 2006 · 11:02 PM EST

Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Tuesday’s balloting was about what we expected. A relatively large political wave swept almost 30 House Republicans out of office and appears to have delivered the Senate to Democrats. Of course, we won’t know the status of control of the Senate for a while, but whatever happens in Virginia and Montana, Democrats had a big night in that chamber, as well.

Actually, Republicans got lucky on Election Day. Many of the close House contests went to the GOP. Had squeakers in districts such as New Mexico’s 1st, Virginia’s 2nd, New York’s 25th and 29th, North Carolina’s 8th, Nevada’s 3rd, Ohio’s 1st, New Jersey’s 7th, Connecticut’s 4th and Wyoming’s at-large seat gone Democratic, we could be talking about a 38- to 40-seat swing.

There were a lot of noteworthy things about Tuesday’s voting, so let me touch on a few of them.

First, what the South was to Democrats in 1994, the Northeast was to Republicans this year. Two seats in Connecticut appear to have fallen, along with another pair in New Hampshire, three in New York and four in Pennsylvania.

The New England and Mid-Atlantic landscape is littered with moderate Republicans, from Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley to Sue Kelly to Nancy Johnson and, possibly, Rob Simmons, and Republicans may find that it was easier to lose those seats than it will be to get them back. Add liberal Republican Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa) to the mix, and you have a national weeding out of moderates that impacted the northeast corner of the nation greatly.

True, moderates such as Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) survived, but even their wins were ugly, and they stand out as exceptions to the rule.

Second, partisan voting devastated Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts. When Leach loses to an underfunded, fourth-tier Democratic challenger, you know that districts carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 saw plenty of straight-ticket voting by Democrats.

But these elections weren’t about partisans after all. Exit polls showed that few partisans defected on Tuesday, and the real story was independents. While independents constituted only about 26 percent of the electorate, those voters went Democratic 57 percent to 39 percent. That 18-point margin is gigantic when it comes to normal independent voting patterns.

Third, all of the talk about a Republican surge during the final days of the campaign was bunk, as I believed (and wrote in this space) at the time.

You aren’t likely to have large moves in public opinion after a lengthy campaign without events that force people to change their assessments and intentions. And given the likelihood that late deciders would move toward Democrats (which is exactly what happened), it was hard to see a Republican surge.

Once again, people overreacted to a couple of polls, particularly the generic ballot in the first Washington Post/ABC News survey and then, even more importantly, the late Pew Research poll, ignoring contradictory polling that suggested Democrats still held a significant advantage in the generic ballot going into Election Day.

It was stunning how quickly people jumped on the “Chafee Resurgent in Rhode Island Senate” bandwagon after seeing just one poll.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any closing toward the end. Montana tightened up in the final week, and there was data showing some increased GOP interest in the elections and likelihood to vote as Nov. 7 neared.

Fourth, we seem to have discovered the base Republican vote in many districts, and we found out where and how the Republicans’ structural advantages from redistricting sheltered some Republican candidates from the wave.

Allegedly vulnerable Republicans in what appeared to be bulletproof GOP districts, such as Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.), Cathy McMorris (Wash.) and Mark Souder (Ind.) and incoming Reps. Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Bill Sali (Idaho), Adrian Smith (Neb.) and Tim Walberg (Mich.) held on despite the wave. Their margins were down, of course, but they survived, some even comfortably.

Republicans now must figure out what they are going to do. They can expect a number of retirements of senior Members now that the party is in the minority, and many GOP House Members will have to deal with being in the minority for the first time in their Congressional tenures.

President Bush, of course, is the biggest loser in a number of ways. He loses at least one chamber, and he is the reason Republicans took a bath on Tuesday. He may console himself by believing that he has the right policy in Iraq and history will judge him kindly. But his performance in office has destroyed a number of noteworthy political careers, and he would be wise to never forget that.