By Patrick B. McGuigan
In the tragedy of “Julius Caesar,” William Shakespeare wrote: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” In both a national and state context the 2010 election may enter the history books as among the most dramatic of the modern era.
Once upon a time, “wave elections” – alternatively they can be dubbed political tsunamis, or tidal waves, or earthquakes – were relatively rare. They seem more frequent now.
In both 2006 and 2008, the tide for Democrats was dramatic, to the point that many believed an era of permanent dominance for Barack Obama’s party had begun.
That was then, this is now.
In a decade of work in Washington, I established particularly deep respect for two excellent journalists/pundits inside the beltway: Charles Cook, a Democratic-leaning prognosticator, and Stuart Rothenberg, a Republican-leaning man of substance for whom I was privileged, on a few occasions, to do “spot reporting.”
Strongly Democratic pundits are saying losses for the president’s party will be held to around 39 or 40. With a net gain of 39 Republicans needed for control, this would put the House in a virtual tie. Then, a lot of attention would be focused on “Blue Dog” Democrats, to see if they might leap across the aisle.
However, the more-or-less-tied outcome seems less likely with each passing day. In a few paragraphs I’ll sketch some factors that just might sustain that optimistic scenario for the party of Jefferson.
Last summer, Cook estimated 32 Democratic seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were “in play.” Several weeks ago, Cook revised that number upward, to 45. He now believes Republicans will win a net of 60 seats, and has not ruled out as many as 70 net Republican gains.
Tuesday of this week, Cook reported the following: “At this point, only 190 House seats are Solid, Likely or Lean Democratic, while 198 seats are Solid, Likely or Lean Republican, and 47 seats are in the Toss Up column. While there are certain to be at least 43 new members of the House thanks to 41 open seats and two vacancies, between 40 and 50 incumbents (over 95 percent of them Democrats) are likely to lose their seats, making for possibly the largest freshman class since 1992.”
Rothenberg this week reported an analysis of polling data finding 96 Democratic incumbents are polling below 50%. Read that sentence again. To be sure, it is virtually impossible to conceive that all 96 will lose -- -- and yet the Republican tide is so powerful that Dick Morris -- in another time the political guru of a rising Democratic star named Bill Clinton -- is saying Republicans might gain 100 seats.
For his part, Dr. Rothenberg this week concluded that the question is whether or not the election will be “Horrendous” for Democrats, or merely “Bad.” He believes we could be at the cusp of the most significant and transformational House elections since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Peter Schoen, in an estimate about two weeks ago, concluded that Republicans will gain around 50 House seats, and nine in the U.S. Senate (creating a tie in the upper chamber).
As for the nation’s governorships, the count is now 26-24 in favor of Democrats. Republicans won both of last year’s odd-year elections (new Jersey and Virginia), and the consensus among pundits this week puts the Grand Old Party at 30 or more executive mansions after Tuesday.
Whether or not the forthcoming results represent an ephemeral tide or a more fundamental shift, its the causes include a Tea Party movement which, for all its contentiousness and controversy, has shifted the Republican mainstream to the right on federal budget and spending questions.
That in turn has made Independents and even libertarians more comfortable within the party, as they were in the early years of the Reagan presidency. There is even a discernible surge of black Republican candidacies in majority white (and Democratic-leaning) districts, but it is not yet clear that those campaigns will succeed, nor is it clear that black voters will follow.
Contributing to the wave is negative response to the priorities established by the Obama administration, including health care legislation enacted without a single Republican vote in Congress.
Whether it is the tea party, Obama’s overreaching, the languid economy or other factors, the stage is set for a “wave election” comparable to the 1994 election that put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House for the first time since just after World War II.
What are possible ameliorating factors that might, just might, offset the apparent tide and leave Democrats in charge of Congress?
In the nine early voting states where partisan data is available, more Democrats than Republicans have voted in six. The nation’s labor unions are spending millions in direct or in-kind money in the latter stages of the election. President Obama himself has directed several million dollars into Democratic campaigns or committees in recent weeks.
A watchful eye on three U.S. Senate races might provide, for Election Night, reasonably good indicators of the bigger picture.
First, in the race for the Pennsylvania seat now held by Arlen Specter, Republican Pat Toomey has taken a single-digit lead over the man who defeated Specter in the Democratic primary, Joe Sestak. If Toomey wins and if Democratic incumbents are falling elsewhere in the northeast U.S. on election night, the stage will be set for the Republican surge, as the sun sets in the west and the rest of the nation finishes voting.
Second, in Nevada, “Tea Party” sweetheart Sharon Angle is the Republican nominee against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the man who shepherded to passage President Obama’s most controversial legislative achievements. She is either narrowly ahead, or narrowly behind, with the averaging data from RealClearPolitics giving her the edge. However, Harry Reid is known for strong closing performances in past elections.
Third, in California, what was once no more than a conservative fantasy is almost within reach. Republican businesswoman Carly Fiorina is in a fierce battle with incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. However, Fiorina’s two-day hospital stay this week could knock the Republican off the stride that had put her within six percentage points (47%-41%) of the once-invulnerable-seeming Sen. Boxer.
Those races will provide a feel for the broader picture. If Republicans win two of those three Senate contests (i.e. if even one of the two Democratic incumbents is defeated, in combination with a Sestak win), the 2010 tide may bring not only the House, but also the Senate, into the hands of the party of Lincoln.
Here at home, Republicans are assured of retaining control of the state House and have, since just after the primaries, known they would be running the state Senate again. With 26 Senate seats presently, Republicans are likely to possess 29 to 31 after Tuesday.
In final pre-election surveys of public opinion in Oklahoma, Republicans have strong leads in the races for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and labor commissioner, and high single-digit leads in the contests for superintendent of public instruction and treasurer. The GOP edge is just beyond the margin of error in the race for auditor and inspector. The Insurance Commissioner’s race, where the Democratic incumbent has a small lead, is too close to call at the moment.
Of the state’s non-federal statewide elected positions, today Democrats have eight of the jobs, Republicans have only three (the Corporation Commissioners). A week from today, Republicans may have every one of them, although one or two Democrats may yet withstand the tide.
As Oklahoma’s historic gubernatorial election demonstrates, in matters of consequence these days the tide of which the immortal Bard wrote involves both women and men. In the drama of our common humanity, in America at least, these days we all get to play, if we so choose.
In its first sentence, America’s Declaration of Independence spoke of “the course of human events” as justification for our Revolution. What seems likely to happen on Tuesday will thrill some and disappoint others.
Regardless of how the tide finally rolls in, the coming election sustains the nation’s healthy tradition that peaceful and consequential course corrections are possible.
About the Author: Patrick B. McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service in Oklahoma City, and senior editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper. He is the author of "The Politics of Direct Democracy: Case Studies in Popular Decision-Making" and of "Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork." His essays appear regularly in Perspective, the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.