Swing Voters, GOP to Democrats: You’re Fired!

by Stuart Rothenberg November 5, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

There were many messages and lessons to be drawn from the 2010 midterm results, but the most obvious one is that Republican, conservative and swing voters fired Democrats — even Democrats they liked, and even Democrats who took care to vote as their constituents wanted.

Sure, freshmen Democratic Reps. Betsy Markey (Colo.), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Tom Perriello (Va.) and Steve Driehaus (Ohio) all lost because they campaigned for “change” and promised “independence” in 2008 but delivered little more than party-line votes and support for the agendas of President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

These and other Democrats who supported the stimulus, the Obama health care package and cap-and-trade legislation in the House were asking for trouble, and it was easy for Republican and swing voters to send pink slips to them, as well as other Democrats who toed the party line.

But Democrats who had often rejected their party’s agenda also fell victim to the anger of GOP and swing voters.

Rep. Bobby Bright (Ala.), who opposed all three core Democratic legislative initiatives — and who indicated that he would not support Pelosi for Speaker in the next Congress — lost narrowly to Republican Martha Roby.

Rep. Walt Minnick (Idaho), the poster child for Democrats who rejected the majority agenda (voting against the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade), went down to defeat to a widely dismissed third-tier Republican nominee, Raul Labrador, who wasn’t even expected to win his party’s nomination.

And Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), who built a 20-year record as a conservative Democrat who often opposed his own party, and who also opposed the Obama administration’s three key agenda items, went down to defeat. Taylor’s winning percentage in 2008? 74.5 percent. In 2006? 79.8 percent. And in 2004? 64 percent.

But Taylor, who drew 60 percent in the Republican wave year of 1994, drew 47 percent this time.

Then there were the Democratic old bulls, all of whom seemed to have so personalized their districts that you’d have needed a crowbar to get them out.
Rep. Chet Edwards seemed unbeatable after turning back a variety of Republican challengers in his 10 terms representing the 17th district of Texas. But Edwards didn’t merely lose Tuesday; he was humiliated, losing by a stunning, almost incomprehensible 26 points, 62 percent to 36 percent. Prior to this year, his lowest percentage was 51 percent in 2004. Say goodnight, Chet.

Here is a clue to what happened to Edwards: Obama drew just 32 percent of the vote in the district two years ago. Republicans in the district simply “came home.”

John Spratt (S.C.), the chairman of the Budget Committee, met a similar fate. His weakest showing in his 14 terms was 52 percent in 1994, and he won easily when President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 (63 percent) and in 2008 (62 percent).

On Tuesday, he drew 45 percent — 1 point less than Obama received in the district. Again, it certainly looks as if Republicans said “enough.”
Interestingly, this is exactly what happened to Rep. Jim Leach in 2006. A moderate Republican from Iowa who often sided with Democrats in the House, Leach’s constituents liked him and his record — until 2006, when they decided the election was more about changing Congress, changing Washington and checking George W. Bush than about whether they liked Leach.

Republicans made an effort early on to widen the playing field, and they surely succeeded. They put credible candidates into places where Republicans hadn’t for many years, and some of those candidates won.

Of course, some not-so-great candidates also won. That happens in a wave year.

Democratic strategists are probably shaking their heads this morning, wondering how some of these damaged GOP nominees were able to win. How could candidates with huge negatives — Allen West in Florida, Tom Marino in Pennsylvania and Scott DesJarlais in Tennessee — possibly win?
GOP operatives thought the same thing the day after the 2006 elections, when plenty of damaged Democrats won.

The answer is simple: Democrats weren’t regarded as effective messengers, especially by conservative and Republican voters, and those voters were so upset about the direction of the country that they were more than willing to overlook the warts on the GOP challengers.

Things were a little different in the Senate, of course.

Senate races spend more money and get more media coverage, so voters are more likely to consider the candidates’ personal qualities.

Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle were obviously disastrous general election candidates who cost Republicans two Senate seats that should have — and would have — fallen into the GOP’s lap in the wave. As of press time Wednesday afternoon it appeared Colorado’s Ken Buck would fall into the same category, although his race had not been officially called.

So how did we do in predicting the results? The last Rothenberg Political Report House projection was as follows: “Likely Republican gain of 55-65 seats, with gains at or above 70 seats possible.” For the Senate, we said: “Republicans likely to gain 6-8 seats.” Not bad, I’d say. Not bad at all.