With some obvious exceptions (Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle) the quality of the candidates didn’t seem to matter last night. We lost pretty much everywhere we could lose. This wasn’t about the candidates but the party labels. If you were a Democrat, you were in deep trouble. It didn’t matter a whole lot where you live, unless your district was ethnically diverse you were likely to lose. Powerful chairmen like John Spratt (Budget), Jim Oberstar (Transportation), and Ike Skelton (Armed Services) were bounced out of office. They weren’t beaten because they were too far to the left. They lost because white people have turned rather decisively against the Democratic Party. The exit polls showed that the Republican Party was actually slightly less popular with the electorate than the Democratic Party. But, what mattered was where the Democrats were popular. Chakah Fattah won in Philadelphia with 90% of the vote. Meanwhile, Democrats lost elections in all but one of the suburban Philly seats. Most of the Democrats who won reelection in California won with over 70% of the vote, but that didn’t help in a couple of districts with low levels of racial diversity.
This isn’t just a result of the economy. People still blame Bush for the economy. It isn’t really a reaction to this or that policy. The Republicans and their media friends have been relentlessly hammering on the president with messages that the president is not on white America’s side. That’s what the stealth birth certificate is about. That’s what the ‘he’s really a Muslim’ thing is about. It’s why they talk about the New Black Panthers and ACORN all the time. And this stuff doesn’t work very well with whites who live in racially and religiously diverse regions or areas of the country. It seems absurd to us, actually. But out in truckstops of Indiana, or the Wal-Mart parking lots of rural Kentucky, they’re convinced that the Democrats are just looking out for minorities.
The reason we did better in the Senate was because progressive votes counted. I don’t think we lost because of all the independent money, although that didn’t help and prevented us from being able to play any offense at all. I don’t think we lost because the Democrats didn’t do x, y, or z. The voters weren’t making a rational policy decision. This was tribal, and it was based on a very successful Republican messaging campaign that was largely subterranean and not even formally embraced or acknowledged.
I don’t think we should take too many lessons out of this election about policy or campaign finance. What we have to turn around is this perception that the Dems are not on white people’s side, because if that persists then we’re not going to able to win national elections and the House will stay in Republicans’ hands.
How do we do that? That’s the difficult part. I guess it starts with gaining a thorough understanding of how the Republicans were able to create that impression.