Rarely have we had a president so unpopular going into a midterm; when we have, it has led to massive congressional turnover. Moreover, while Democrats have expanded our advantage on key domestic issues, Republicans’ once vast lead on national security has been largely neutralized.
One measure of political instability: the number of Republicans holding seats that vote Democratic for president and vice versa. When big political waves hit, that is precisely where much of the action is. In the two prior presidential elections, Bush (the father) or Reagan had won 30 of the 34 seats Democratic incumbents lost in ’94. Similarly, two-thirds of the Republican incumbents who lost in ’82 were running in districts presidential Democrats had won just previously.
Today, though, there are fewer mismatched seats than at any point in recent history. Going into 1994, 53 Democrats held seats won by Bush in 1992. Today just 18 Republicans hold seats won by Kerry. So, while forces in the political environment push strongly in a Democratic direction, they are acting on a relatively stable structure: Hence the test.
The moral of the story, in 1994 the political system was instable, there were a lot of Democratic seats begging to fall. Not the case with Republican seats in 2006. By my count the Democrats knocked off 8 Republican incumbents in the House this year, and all Senate pickups were against incumbents. The only Republican held Senate seat that was open was Tennessee where Harold Ford nearly shocked the world to win in deep red Tennessee. The Democrats on the other hand had an uphill battle in the Senate. They had to defend open seats in Maryland and Minnesota, the Republicans ran their best possible candidates in both districts, and expected to pick up at least one in Minnesota before this election had materialized. Further, red State Democrats were in potential jeopardy, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, and Kent Conrad were all considered shaky incumbents at the early stages of this election. So the Democrats had to pick up six seats in the Senate from incumbents with only one potentially coming from an opening while defending 2 open races and several at risk incumbent Democrats. Compare that to 5 Democrats retiring in the Senate in 1994. The Democrats had potential turf to defend this year, Republicans in 2006 had only one open seat to defend.
Finally, at the State level Democrats won the majority of governorships as well as controlling at least one legislative chamber of 39 States (Nebraska has no parties). Democrats have single party rule in 15 States now, Republicans in 10. The State-level Democratic gains show that this election was not purely an Iraq protest vote. Americans in most facets of policy do not like the way Republicans have been governing, and that is reflected by the large turnarround at the State level. 275 seats nationwide in State legislatures were won by Democrats last night.
In short, the tidal wave of 2006 should not have happened, the Republicans had all the structural advantages to prevent the massive losses that they experienced. The Republicans had far more advantages in 1994. The 1994 Republicans had open seats to pick off in the Senate, they were defending 1 open seat in 2006 to the 5 that the Democrats were defending in 1994. Districts in 1994 were often represented by members of the opposite Party as the Presidential candidate that they voted for, not the case in 2006. Finally, more Americans will be represented by a Democrat in 2006 than in 2004, the difference in gains only represents a difference in the number of seats held prior to the election. This tidal wave was not small, it was huge, as big as the 1994 tidal wave if not bigger.
American voters gave Democrats a chance on Tuesday all accross the nation. They want change, not just on Iraq policy but accross the policy agenda, and they made themselves quite clear about it. Now is the time for Democrats to govern and prove to voters they can do better.