Scenario #2: Democrats Lose House, Cling to Senate

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 5, 2010 · 9:51 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.

#2 Democrats Lose House, Cling to Senate

Nov. 3, 2010 Frustrated voters ousted Democrats from control of the House as the economy and unemployment dominated Election Day. Tuesday’s results were not a warm embrace of the GOP but rather a rejection of the direction of the country, and Democrats, as the party in power, took the heavy losses.

Democrats narrowly held the Senate, but Republicans gained eight seats, cutting the majority’s cushion to two. Votes are still being tallied in some close House races, but Republicans are poised to gain at least 45 seats, giving them a handful more than they need for control.

It’s the first time since World War II that the House has flipped control without the Senate changing partisan hands as well.

The Republican wave wasn’t quite as large as the tsunami that appeared to be building in September, but Tuesday’s results were a stunning turnaround from less than two years ago when jubilant Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House — and had a reasonable chance of expanding their majorities in 2010.

But as the economy continued to lag, voters focused less on the cause of the economic troubles and more on their current and future well-being.

Coming into Election Day, the closeness of the national generic ballot masked the Democratic Party’s challenge in competitive seats and in places where President Barack Obama was unpopular.

Democrats were able to rally an apathetic base, but not at the 2008 or even 2006 levels they desired. It was enough to keep the wave from turning into something far worse. But the party had a fundamental problem with independent voters, who went for Republicans by about 20 points in competitive races.

After losing more than 50 House seats in the past two election cycles, Republicans had dug themselves a significant hole, but it also meant the 2010 battle was fought in familiar territory.

The majority of seats won Tuesday night by Republicans were GOP-leaning districts that Arizona Sen. John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election.

Republicans won seats from coast to coast, but they did particularly well in the Midwest, picking up multiple seats in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Pennsylvania and New York.

In the last month of the campaign, dozens of Democratic incumbents were hovering near 50 percent or in the low to mid-40s against unknown challengers. Some, such as Pennsylvania Rep. Christopher Carney (D), went on to win in a McCain district, while others, such as New York Rep. John Hall (D), lost in an Obama district.

Throughout the campaign, Republicans keyed on Democratic incumbents’ votes on the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade and health care reform, but in the end there was no universal formula for survival.

Democrats offset some of the GOP gains by picking up seats in Louisiana, Delaware and Illinois, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the three dozen incumbents and 12 open seats they lost.

In the Senate, Republicans fell two seats short of the 10 they needed to capture the majority, but the results still represent a significant victory for the party.

Republicans knocked off four Democratic incumbents, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.). In addition, tea party favorite Sharron Angle dislodged Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) from his seat in Nevada.

Both candidates were very unpopular by the end of the race, but Reid was never able to climb out of the mid-40s and became the second Democratic Majority Leader to lose re-election in the past four cycles.

Republicans also picked up four Democratic open seats: North Dakota, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

While moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (R) won Obama’s former Senate seat, the next Republican caucus is likely to be influenced by a conservative coalition that includes Angle and five other tea party candidates who won Tuesday.

With the threat of a tea party takeover, Democratic turnout increased slightly and saved Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) on the West Coast, where Obama maintained a decent job approval rating.

Similar to past wave elections, Senate Republicans didn’t lose a single seat of their own. Voters simply didn’t hold the GOP responsible for the lagging economy and the direction of the country. Indeed, former GOP Rep. Rob Portman’s victory in Ohio proved that time had expired on the Democrats’ “blame Bush strategy.” Portman had clear ties to Washington and George W. Bush, yet he won comfortably in a competitive state.