Make no mistake: the essay you are about to read is not one that is awash in optimism.
There are no shortage of signs that 2010 could be a deeply perilous year for the Democratic Party:
- The ghosts of cycles past is certainly going to visit the Democrats with no small amount of woe to follow. It is, in the recent political past, decidedly rare for a political party to have two "wave elections" in a row. Yet that is exactly what the Democrats have enjoyed in both 2006 and 2008, when they gained over a dozen Senate seats and over 50 House seats. This creates two dangerous dynamics for the Democrats: (a) there is precious little low-hanging fruit left for the Democrats to harvest and (b) there are plenty of potentially imperiled Democrats who owe their seats to the favorable electoral climates to which they were elected.
- Whereas Democrats benefitted politically from voter discontent in both 2006 and 2008, any lingering voter anger (and recent right track/wrong track polling data confirms it is still very much out there) is likely to get directed disproportionately to the party-in-power. Of course, this is a fluid statistic, and voter malaise in January could become relative contentedness by November, depending on the state of the economy and any legislative accomplishments that can be touted between then and now.
- Perhaps the biggest concern for Democrats has to be the sizeable gap between the two parties in terms of voter motivation as we head into 2010. It should give the Democratic Party tremendous pause that, according to the final Daily Kos "State of the Nation" tracking poll, 45% of Democrats identify themselves as either unlikely to vote or certain not to vote. For the Democrats to avoid a major defeat in 2010, this above all other things needs to be rectified.
Democrats, all that having been said, do have a unique weapon at their disposal which might limit their losses in 2010. And it is not the traditional advantages of money, or superior recruits, or even an advantage in open seats (although, despite the hype over Democrats "fleeing" from Congress, the two parties are both defending roughly an equal number of open seats).
Their unique weapon? The Republican Party.
It has gone largely underreported in the traditional press, but the ascendancy of the "tea party" movement brings with it enormous electoral peril for the Republican Party, and carries with it the potential to blunt potential gains for the GOP in what otherwise might have been a very lucrative 2010 election cycle.
The typical trad-med coverage of the "tea party" goings-on have reflected on the ascendancy of the movement and the implications for the Obama administration and their political initiatives. Lost in the coverage was the implications for the Republican Party, save for a brief moment of reflection on that subject in the wake of the electoral outcome in New York's 23rd district (although even that got buried underneath the tortured attempts to pin the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial results on the Obama administration).
It is mystifying that a simple Google News search of the term "Democrats Divided" yields significantly more results than the term "Republicans Divided" (1060 to 794, for those scoring at home). After all, while it was given scant coverage in the larger narrative of the 2009 election cycle, the odyssey that was the New York 23rd special election might have been the most instructive in understanding the political dynamics of the 2010 electoral cycle.
In retrospect, there were several aspects of the Owens-Scozzafava-Hoffman contest that were extraordinary. It was not just the discontent of the activist Right over the decision to nominate Scozzafava, who like many Northeastern Republicans was not doctrinal on social issues. That, to some extent, was to be expected.
What made the betrayal of DeDe Scozzafava so extraordinary was the reaction of the "official" GOP to the events as they transpired. In short, the reaction was so scattershot that it bordered on the comical.
In one hand, the Republican party funded the Scozzafava candidacy with independent expenditures that may well have topped a million dollars. In the other hand was the steadily increasing number of Republican "regulars" eager to embrace the third-party insurgent conservative, Doug Hoffman. It culminated in the campaign's final week, when no less a Republican figure than national party chairman Michael Steele essentially abandoned his own nominee, saying that a Hoffman victory would be just fine by him, since Hoffman, too, was a registered Republican.
This is a microcosm of the problem confronting the GOP. They want to harness the potential political energy and power of the "tea party" movement. But they are very wary of ceding their party to that movement. Thus, the often absurd dance of the Republican Party, which in one breath embraces the teabaggers while in the next breath endeavoring hard to keep them at arms length.
Nowhere has this dance been more evident than in one Newt Gingrich. Back in October, he endorsed DeDe Scozzafava, and then pushed back hard when the usual suspects on the right criticized him for embracing a "RINO":
My number one interest is to build a Republican majority. If your interest is taking power back from the Left, and your interest is winning the necessary elections, then there are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it.
We have to decide which business we are in. If we are in the business about feeling good about ourselves while our country gets crushed then I probably made the wrong decision.
Of course, that was then. This is now, in the form of a Newt Gingrich tweet from Saturday:
Every American who is not corrupted by the secular-socialist left should join the Tea Party movement.
Another dilemma for the GOP is that this schism is, in no small part, an inside job. Some of the most vocal proponents of the Republican Party have elected to make themselves leaders of the insurgency.
In some cases, this has come from the realm of the conservative media, where voices like Laura Ingraham are using their fairly vast platform to extol insurgent candidates against candidates that were recruited, in no small part by the GOP. In just the past month, Ingraham has used her show to tout insurgent primary challenges to party-anointed 2010 candidates like Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte and VA-05 House frontrunner Rob Hurt.
In other cases, the push for insurgency has come from within their elected ranks. No one has pushed that envelope further than right-wing U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, who has made it his quest to dramatically reshape the Senate by endorsing and fundraising for insurgent right-wing candidates from coast-to-coast. As James Rosen at McClatchy News Service wrote last month:
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is using his rising national profile among conservative activists to support and bankroll Republican Senate candidates around the country, some of them underdogs challenging GOP establishment favorites.
DeMint's endorsements of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio over Gov. Charlie Crist and California state Rep. Chuck DeVore over former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina put him at odds with other prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and fellow South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
This movement by DeMint has to rankle Republicans eager to make gains in the Senate. If a sitting Senator like DeMint says that people like Carly Fiorina and Charlie Crist are insufficently conservative to become U.S. Senators, then what can be said about some of the NRSC's top recruits? Certainly Mike Castle in Delaware, and Rob Simmons in Connecticut (try as he might to embarrassingly he tries to ingratiate himself to the teabaggers) would not meet the Jim DeMint purity test.
And therein lies a monstrous dilemma for the GOP, one which could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Do they risk dimming the fire of the insurgents by sticking with their anointed "mainstream" candidates? Or do they embrace the insurgents, and wind up anointing unelectable candidates in winnable races (see: Hoffman, Doug)?
Worse yet, does their dithering on the issue actually inspire a spate of conservative third-party challengers, as has already happened in several races?
Any political analyst who does not factor the GOP/teabagger relationship into their electoral calculus may well be missing a potentially pivotal piece of the campaign puzzle.