I hate to admit it but Karl Rove is right about one thing. The Democrats’ electoral victory was surprisingly shallow. In a year where I got most things right, including the outcome of the presidential and Senate races, I was simply wrong about the House and state/local races. Down-ticket Republicans showed remarkable resiliency.
In a sign Mr. Obama’s victory may have been more personal than partisan or philosophical, Democrats picked up just 10 state senate seats (out of 1,971) and 94 state house seats (out of 5,411). By comparison, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, Republicans picked up 112 state senate seats (out of 1,981) and 190 state house seats (out of 5,501).
In the states this year, five chambers shifted from Republican to Democrats, while four shifted from either tied or Democratic control to Republican control. In the South, Mr. Obama had “reverse coattails.” Republicans gained legislative seats across the region. In Tennessee both the house and senate now have GOP majorities for the first time since the Civil War.
I was anticipating down-ticket results more in line (if not as big) as Ronald Reagan enjoyed. It didn’t happen, and I’m not sure why. Here’s what I do know.
Obama managed to shift the electorate by making the Democrats competitive in the Atlantic South, solidifying the upper Midwest, and moving the Latino-heavy Southwest into the Democratic column. But he didn’t succeed in fundamentally altering the partisan divisions in most of the country’s districts. Lots and lots of Republican leaning districts returned their Republican state and federal reps to power while simultaneously voting for Obama-Biden. Politicians that were swept away in the Obama wave, like Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, were the exception rather than the rule. And Shays came from a blue-leaning district.
This creates an opportunity for further gains. I think the key is for the Democratic Congress to deliver something of real tangible value to the voters. If they give health insurance to the 45 million Americans that don’t have it and make it more affordable for those that do, I think the reward will be a shift of allegiance towards the Democrats that leads to the kind of down-ticket movement we did not see in the November election.
The presidential and senate races demonstrated a real backlash against Bushism, but the backlash was muted in the House races, and non-existent on the state/local level. That tells me that people haven’t become solid Democrats. They are sick of Republicans in Washington and are willing to give the Democrats a chance. But to win over the people and make them loyal Democrats up and down the ticket, they need to see a tangible improvement in their lives. Health care is the key.