The past five weeks have afforded us an avalanche of post-mortems for the recently completed election cycle. Today, let me add mine.
It won't sound like many you've read. Certainly, it won't echo a lot of the "ascendant Republicans" or "center-right nation" bellowing being parroted by traditional media outlets. Both exit polling and conventional polling shows that the Republican brand name is still pretty damaged. Indeed, the most shocking exit poll finding, given the final results, was that the electorate had a lower opinion of Republicans (41/53) than Democrats (44/52).
The guy that had the best read on the electorate, in that respect, was our polling partner Tom Jensen. Jensen, noted, in November of 2009, that he was seeing Republicans dominating among voters who disapproved of both parties. His analysis, which seems to have fit well with what happened: voters who disliked both parties went Republican, on the prospect that a GOP candidate would be more likely to "shake things up" and provide changes.
So, no, this won't be a "woe are the Democrats" piece.
But nor will it be a Kevin Bacon in Animal House-esque piece exhorting you to "remain calm...All is well!"
Getting 63 House seats and a half-dozen Senate seats shot out from under you is nothing that can be minimized, especially when those losses are married with literally hundreds of state legislative seats that also switched hands. The election has to be humbling for Democrats, and requires some serious debate about where to go from here. But that, too, is not the subject matter for this piece.
Today, in the name of going against the grain, let us celebrate three things about the just-completed elections. While the losses were both staggering and sobering, there are a few glimmers of silver lining that emerged from this cycle, believe it or not.
1. Stock up on popcorn--the GOP is still on track for a train wreck
In the wake of November 2nd, the thing that surprised me was the relatively light amount of intraparty recriminations in the GOP. If that seems counterintuitive, given their huge gains, consider: the "establishment v. teabagger" civil war in the GOP might have cost the Republicans FOUR Senate seats.
Three of them are fairly obvious: polling during the cycle confirmed that the GOP nominated three less-electable candidates in Ken Buck (CO), Sharron Angle (NV), and Christine O'Donnell (DE). So, instead of incoming GOP Senators Jane Norton, Danny Tarkanian, and Mike Castle, we get instead a trio of Democrats: Michael Bennet, Harry Reid, and Chris Coons.
But there was a potential fourth casualty of the GOP civil war: Dino Rossi. Remember that the mid-August GOP primary in Washington State, turned fairly acrimonious at the last. You might recall, for example, that the tea party favorite that Rossi vanquished, Clint Didier, did not handle defeat well, pointedly and vocally refusing to endorse the victor.
It is worth noting that nationally, the electorate skewed Republican. While Barack Obama won in 2008 by more than seven points, the 2010 exit polls showed an electorate that split evenly between Obama and McCain. But exit polls also show that such was not the case in Washington, where the margin was only a few points different between the 2010 exit polls and the actual results from 2008. Furthermore, while the conservative/liberal gap nationally exploded (from C+12 in 2008 to C+22 in 2010), it barely moved in Washington State (from C+5 in 2008 to C+6 in 2010). In a race as close as this one proved to be (52-48), it is possible that Didier's contentious challenge was a difference-maker? Quite possibly.
And, for Democrats, the good news is that there little to suggest that the GOP has set aside their self-destructive ways in advance of 2012. The confetti had barely been swept up from the 2010 midterms before a state senator began openly contemplating a primary challenge to the right of longtime Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). Meanwhile, in Maine, Olympia Snowe has tacked to the right in an effort to avoid being Mike Castle'd, as well. But it might be for naught, apparently the Maine Tea Party is already crowing about having a conservative candidate waiting in the wings to offer a primary challenge to Snowe.
And, friends, that isn't even taking into account the pending presidential primary on the Republican side. Given the propensity for some of the biggest potential players in that particular contest for throwing elbows (Palin? Gingrich?), the entertainment factor could be sky high.
2. Money matters, but it is not a guarantee of victory.
On a number of levels, the most satisfying result on Election Night, for me, was the defeat of Republican Meg Whitman here in California. Aside from the obvious (she wouldn't be my governor, nor would I have to see another damned TV ad for her campaign), there was a bigger factor.
California seemed to be one of the few states impervious to the Republican wave, and Whitman may well have been the primary reason why. Make no mistake: her defeat was a resounding one. Her percentage of the vote (a tick under 41%) is the worst performance for a Republican in a gubernatorial election since 1998, and the second-worst since Jerry Brown's last gubernatorial win...in 1978.
Whitman's campaign was an interesting case study. Historically, the presumption has been that if you win the money game, and you win the air war, you would win the election. Whitman's historic act of self-promotion (which shattered...perhaps forever...every record for campaign spending in a statewide campaign) would seem to be tailored for victory, according to the classic presumptions about politics. ESPECIALLY in a year which seemed to favor the GOP on a macro-level.
Instead, the opposite happened. The more Whitman saturated the airwaves, the worse she performed. She went from even money to a slight underdog by Labor Day. By October, she was a decided underdog. By November, she was left resorting to that classic rallying cry of the about-to-be-defeated: "the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day."
There were examples of this nationwide, although many of them did not necessarily favor the Democrats. There were multiple examples of this phenomenon in House races where comparably lightly-funded Republicans defeated Democratic incumbents. This is not unusual in wave elections, a fact I noted in July, when I warned that money alone does not hold back the tide of a typical wave election.
But it is heartening to think that Whitman's high-profile drubbing might dissuade future generations of gazillionaire dilettantes from trying to buy political office, seeing how her $160 million investment came up so memorably short.
3. Some of the most painful Dem defeats can pay dividends down the line
This is arguably the most tarnished silver lining, but when you lose a few hundred seats, you take 'em where you can get 'em. When life gives you lemons, and all that...
The size and nature of the Republican wave did usher in some GOP victors who would have been totally unelectable in a typical election cycle. The job for the Democrats now is to take those souls and make them the public face of the GOP from this point forward.
And there are some great prospects. Sure, incoming Senator Rand Paul gets most of the attention, but what about someone like Ron Johnson, whose business career embodies the "smaller government, unless it is enriching me" philosophy?
And sure, the GOP turnout surge in Florida to elect Marco Rubio got him elected, but that's no reason not to make Medicare fraudster Rick Scott the face of the Florida GOP.
And we won't even delve into the peanut gallery that is the GOP's freshman class in the House.
Sure, it might not matter if Democratic enthusiasm continues to be suppressed. But one thing that can often resurrect enthusiasm is creating great villains. Therein lies one lesson of 2010 that the Democrats would do very well to learn.