Arecord-setting Dow, solid economic growth (averaging more than 3.1 percent per year over the last two years), an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent and an inflation rate of 2.1 percent could not protect the Republican Party from the Democratic tsunami that convulsed America’s political landscape on Nov. 7. As bad as it was, Republicans should take a minute to imagine how much worse it could have been. Indeed, if the average price of gasoline had not plunged 84 cents a gallon (from $3.08 to $2.24) over the preceding three months and if Karl Rove’s 72-hour get-out-the-vote blitz had not helped to rescue as many as 40 House seats and the Tennessee Senate seat, the old-fashioned “thumpin’ “ that Democrats administered on Election Day could easily have turned into a political catastrophe of epic proportions.
Let’s survey the landscape. Capturing control of the Senate with a 51-49 majority, Democrats pulled off the “double hat trick” by defeating six incumbent Republican senators, while successfully defending all 18 Democratic seats (including Vermont). Given the favorable Republican outlook for 2006 following the 2004 presidential election, the Democratic victory margins achieved by incumbents once thought to be potentially vulnerable were stunning: Florida’s Bill Nelson (22 percentage points), Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow (16 points), Nebraska’s Ben Nelson (28 points), North Dakota’s Kent Conrad (39 points), Washington’s Maria Cantwell (22 points) and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd (30 points). Democrats con- testing the party’s three open Senate seats all cruised to victory on Election Day, winning Minnesota by 20 points, Maryland by 11 points and Vermont (which reelected a Republican governor) by 33 points. As we have frequently pointed out, the victorious party has traditionally won the lion’s share of close Senate elections. Democratic candidates prevailed in all four close races where a Republican incumbent was defeated, winning Virginia (49.6-49.3), Montana (49.1-48.3), Missouri (49.5-47.4) and Rhode Island (53.5-46.5).
In the House, where eight seats are in various stages of recounting and provisional-ballot tallying and two seats will be decided by run-offs, Democrats (so far) have knocked off 20 Republican incumbents and have captured eight open seats that were vacated by Republicans. The GOP casualties included six-term Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona; seven-term California Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the Resources Committee; 12term Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut; three Indiana representatives whose districts re-elected President Bush by margins of 13, 19 and 24 points; 30-year House veteran Jim Leach of Iowa, former Banking Committee chairman; the twomember House delegation of New Hampshire, including six-term Rep. Charlie Bass; New York Reps. Sue Kelly (the sixterm member who won re-election in 2002 and 2004 with 70 percent and 67 percent, respectively) and John Sweeney (the four-termer who won re-election in 2002 and 2004 with 73 percent and 66 percent); eight-term Rep. Charles Taylor of North Carolina; and four Pennsylvania incumbents, including Melissa Hart (who won re-election in 2002 and 2004 with 65 percent and 63 percent), 20-year veteran Curt Weldon (who averaged 66 percent throughout his career) and mistressplagued Don Sherwood (who received 93 percent of the vote in each of his two previous campaigns).
Among the eight Republican-held open seats that Democrats captured were the Arizona seat vacated by 22-year veteran Jim Kolbe; three scandal-tinged seats held by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Mark Foley of Florida and Bob Ney of Ohio; and three seats in Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin that were vacated by Republicans who were defeated Nov. 7 in gubernatorial campaigns.
Speaking of governors: Democrats won 20 of the 36 seats up for grabs on Nov. 7. Five Democrats captured governors’ jobs vacated by retiring Republicans (New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado and Arkansas); and Martin O’Malley, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, defeated Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Republicans should take little solace from the reelection victory of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recovered from plunging approval ratings after first hiring as his chief of staff the cabinet secretary of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and then governing as a Democrat. Excluding Mr. Schwarzenegger, Democrats now control 28 governorships, six more than Republicans control. Democrats also did quite well in races for seats in state legislatures, capturing nearly 300 seats from Republicans and majority control of nine chambers. Including legislative chambers and governors’s mansions, Democrats now totally control 15 states, the most one party has dominated since the Republican landslide of 1994.
Now consider how much worse it could have been. A review of all 435 House contests reveals that at least 24 Republican candidates won re-election with 53 percent or less of the vote. Notables include Chris Shays of Connecticut, three New York incumbents (James Walsh, Tom Reynolds and Randy Kuhl), Ohio’s Steve Chabot, Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent and Thelma Drake of Virginia. Another 11 Republicans won reelection with 54 or 55 percent of the vote. In six undecided races (two in Ohio and one each in New Mexico, Wyoming, North Carolina and Washington), Republican representatives hold very small leads. These three groups of potentially endangered Republicans total more than 40 GOP seats. (Democrats hold small leads in undecided contests in Georgia and Connecticut, which involves Republican incumbent Rep. Rob Simmons.)
In the absence of the recent plunge in gasoline prices and without the benefit of Mr. Rove’s 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort, which most analysts believe could add three or four points to a Republican candidate’s total, many of the 40-plus seats could have — and probably would have — fallen to Democrats. Instead of a 28-to-30 seat loss, Republicans very conceivably could have faced a loss of 60 or more seats.