Democrats Made a Mountain Out of a Molehill

by Stuart Rothenberg December 2, 2010 · 11:06 AM EST

“In retrospect, the die may have been cast for the November elections on May 19, 2010,” Republican consultant Brad Todd said, pointing to the day after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th district.

Todd, who is a close adviser to National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and was heavily involved in the NRCC’s independent expenditure effort this cycle, argued that Democrats — and the national media — completely misread the meaning of that special election to fill the late Rep. John Murtha’s open seat.

After considering Todd’s case, it’s difficult to disagree with him.

Most pre-election and post-election analysis treated the special election in a conservative district carried by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election as a test case for the fall.

So when Mark Critz, a former aide to the late Democratic Congressman, defeated Republican businessman Tim Burns despite some polls showing the Republican with a narrow lead, Democrats took the result as irrefutable evidence that November wouldn’t be nearly as bad for the Democratic Party as some were predicting.

“We are going to maintain our majority,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) predicted after the results were in.

“Republicans test-drove their November strategy in Pennsylvania and it crashed,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) bragged.

“Where’s the wave?” Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) asked in this newspaper (“Democrats Breathing Easier Now,” May 20, 2010) just after the special election — and less than six months before her own re-election bid drowned in a gigantic Republican wave.

While I was much more cautious about the meaning of the results of the special election than most (“Pennsylvania Special: Only One Piece in Bigger Picture,” May 27, 2010), even I didn’t entirely dismiss the meaning of the May 18 special election results. I should have.

Democrats seem to have misinterpreted the Critz victory in a number of ways.

First, Democratic insiders concluded that talk about the GOP wave and voter dissatisfaction was exaggerated. Yes, people were unhappy, but that didn’t mean that they automatically were going to vote Republican, even in socially conservative, blue-collar areas.

If Republicans couldn’t defeat Critz in a special election, how could they possibly knock off Keystone State Democratic incumbents such as Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper, Paul Kanjorski and Jason Altmire, who also represent blue-collar Pennsylvania districts, or Rep. Steve Driehaus (Ohio), who owed his ’08 win to working-class Catholics?

Democrats also concluded that Critz’s victory proved they could win races late with tough enough attacks, heavy spending and a strong field program, no matter how unenthusiastic the party’s base voters appeared.

Third, Democratic insiders concluded that GOP pollsters had relied on overly rosy turnout scenarios and questionable polling assumptions in suggesting that Burns would win, and they dismissed Republican polls in the summer and fall as evidence that those same GOP consultants hadn’t learned their lessons.

And finally, Democrats figured that Burns’ loss proved that Republican attacks on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were ineffective and that she wouldn’t be a serious problem for the party’s House candidates in November.

In every case, Democrats were mistaken. Critz survived his re-election bid, but 52 Democrats were not so lucky on Election Day.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Republican wave strengthened between May and November. That’s the nature of a “wave” election. It grows over time, as the entire nation focuses on a national event.

By the time November rolled around, voters saw the midterm elections as a national referendum on Pelosi and President Barack Obama, and for those increasingly unhappy with the performance of the administration and the Congress, voting Republican was the only alternative.

Guy Harrison, the NRCC executive director, pushed the Pelosi strategy throughout the year and through Election Day, and NRCC focus groups found that the Speaker was a lightning rod for voter anger.

“While swing voters in our focus groups were down on the president, they wanted to make excuses for him. No one made excuses for Pelosi or had anything favorable to say about her,” Todd said.

During the special election, Democratic attacks on Burns for “shipping jobs overseas” may have been effective. But come November, voters registered as independents were thinking like Republicans — they didn’t believe the Democratic attacks, or they figured there was limited risk supporting the GOP challenger given the Democrats’ performance while in power.

As for the two parties’ polls conducted during the summer and fall, as far as I can tell, usually reliable Republican pollsters produced accurate numbers and their turnout assumptions proved entirely reasonable. Democrats’ belief that GOP polling was wrong was, itself, incorrect.

The “Murtha factor” may well have helped Critz in the special election and again in November. Voters’ affection for the late Congressman may well have helped his former aide hold the seat even in a hostile environment, making the district more of an aberration than a test case.

But it’s also probably true that Critz’s campaign strategy had something to do with his survival.

“Democrats missed the most obvious lesson of the special election,” Todd said. “Mark Critz won by running as a brake pedal to his own party. The entire election was about putting the brakes on Obama and Pelosi.” Critz, of course, was pro-life and pro-gun, and he said he would have opposed the health care reform bill and Democratic cap-and-trade bill.

Critz won the special election by almost 8 points and in November by less than 2, while Republicans won more than 60 seats in the midterm elections. Clearly, Pennsylvania’s 12th district was an outlier.

“Winners always see what they want to see in special elections, and losers conclude nothing worked. It’s rarely that simple,” Todd said.

For my money, that’s the best lesson of all.