Scenario #1: Base Turns Out Late, Saves Democrats

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 5, 2010 · 9:50 AM EDT

One month before Election Day and this much is clear: Democrats will take a pounding when frustrated (and in some cases unemployed) voters go to the polls. Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans are unhappy with the present course of the country and are impatient for a reversal in the economy’s long, downward slide.

The question now is how bad it will get for Democrats.

So volatile are the times that evidence supports three distinct possible outcomes on Election Day. Democrats could endure heavy losses but retain governing majorities in the House and the Senate, they could keep the Senate but lose the House, or they could surrender both in a tide of voter fury that Republicans have shrewdly embraced.

Here is one possible Election Day outcome.

#1 Base Turns Out Late, Saves Democrats

Nov. 3, 2010 A frustrated electorate took out its anger on the Democratic Party on Tuesday, but voters didn’t trust the GOP enough to hand it the reins of government. Democrats suffered significant losses but held on to majorities in the House and the Senate and will continue one-party control of Washington for at least two more years.

With votes still being counted in a handful of races, Republicans are poised to gain four seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House, not nearly the gains the GOP was hoping for just a few weeks ago.

Coming into the midterm elections, a majority of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track — the unemployment rate was above 9 percent, and President Barack Obama’s job approval rating was mediocre.

But a late surge of Democratic voters boosted party incumbents. Heavy spending on attack ads by Democrats effectively demonized dozens of GOP challengers and made them unacceptable alternatives for voters craving change.

In the Senate, Democrats relied on their firewall in the West as appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) was elected to a full term and incumbent Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) continued their party’s coastal dominance by winning re-election, despite having very expensive and competitive races.

In Nevada, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) was re-elected, in part because the Republican nominee was tea party candidate Sharron Angle, whom the Reid campaign found easy to paint as outside the mainstream. Still, Reid was held below 50 percent in his victory, an unmistakable rebuke for the party leader.

In total, after significant success in the primary elections, tea-party-powered candidates lost in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado. But tea party favorites Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Joe Miller (R-Alaska), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) won their elections and could form a significant new conservative movement within the Senate GOP caucus.

Republicans won four Democratic seats while holding on to all of their own. Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) won in Pennsylvania, Rep. John Boozman (R) knocked off incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas, Gov. John Hoeven (R) won easily in North Dakota, and former Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana returns to the Senate after a decade out of office.

Lincoln was the sole Senate incumbent to lose Tuesday, but she was joined in defeat by two dozen of her Democratic colleagues in the House. In total, Republicans appeared to take over three dozen Democratic seats but Democrats offset some of those losses by winning five Republican seats.

About two-thirds of the GOP gains came in districts that Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) carried in the 2008 presidential election — places where the massive Democratic get-out-the-vote operation wasn’t enough to put Democratic candidates over the top.

Through the summer and fall, Republicans keyed on Democratic incumbents’ votes on the stimulus bill, health care reform and the cap-and-trade bill. But on Tuesday, there wasn’t a clear pattern to the Democratic losses when it came to votes.

Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Mississippi’s 1st), Frank Kratovil (Maryland’s 1st), Glenn Nye (Virginia’s 2nd) and Zack Space (Ohio’s 18th) voted against the final health care bill but were voted out of office, while Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pennsylvania’s 3rd), Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona’s 1st), Debbie Halvorson (Illinois’ 11th) and Earl Pomeroy (North Dakota’s at-large) voted for it and lost re-election as well.

With economic uncertainty permeating the American electorate, the GOP talked about reclaiming the majority. But Democrats turned the elections from a referendum on the direction of the country into a localized choice between the two parties and won enough district-by-district battles.

Also, conservative third-party candidates in several key districts siphoned off likely Republican voters and helped Democrats win.

Holding the majority is bittersweet for Democrats as they say goodbye to some veterans whose districts have long favored Republicans. Reps. John Spratt (South Carolina’s 5th) and Chet Edwards (Texas’ 17th) had survived past GOP waves, but they weren’t able to overcome the national mood and their local terrain.

As expected, Democrats won GOP open seats in Illinois and Delaware and knocked off incumbent GOP Reps. Anh “Joseph” Cao (Louisiana’s 2nd) and Charles Djou (Hawaii’s 1st), who was elected just a few months ago in a special election.