As House Democrats try to figure out how to rebound from their Election Day drubbing, 2010 may come to signify a political realignment with ramifications well into the next decade.
There’s little doubt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York will continue to be battlegrounds in 2012 and beyond. But among the 60 seats Republicans won Tuesday are 15 or more staunchly conservative districts where Democrats are unlikely to compete again anytime soon.
Independent voters, many of them in suburban areas in the Midwest and Mountain West, had backed Democrats up and down the ballot in 2006 and 2008. But they swung heavily toward Republicans in 2010. Those areas are likely to be decisive in the coming presidential cycle.
But Democrats suffered heavy House losses in the South and the coal-rich Ohio River Valley — two areas where downballot Democrats on the ticket in 2012 will have to run well ahead of President Barack Obama to compete.
What’s more, pickups on both the Congressional and state legislative levels have Republicans thinking they can tilt the Congressional lines in those areas further in their favor through redistricting.
On Wednesday, some Republican leaders were already viewing the results as the beginning of a new realignment of the American political system. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said that these elections will go down as bringing “broader and deeper” changes to American politics than even the historic 1994 election.
“I believe it’s pretty long-lasting. I think there’s a chord that’s been struck,” Gillespie said. “I do think that 2012 will be a very defining moment for the country, and voters will see it that way.”
Democrats spent Wednesday trying to put the losses in perspective. All of the gains the party made in 2006 and 2008 were washed away in one night.
“I’ve been through enough of these now where I’m reminding my staff today that in 2008, they were talking about the Republican Party being dead. In 2004, they were talking about a permanent Republican majority,” North Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Andrew Whalen said. “These things are cyclical, and what the map looks like today, it’s not going to look like in 2012.”
Among the defeated veteran Democrats were Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.), John Spratt (S.C.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Gene Taylor (Miss.). All had survived the 1994 GOP wave and had routinely been re-elected easily despite their constituents’ growing tendency to support Republicans at the state and federal level. Now that they’ve lost, it’s hard to see how Democrats will be competitive again in those territories. Republican insiders said it wasn’t entirely by chance that many of the most conservative districts held by Democrats went Republican in the wave.
“One of our major strategies from the beginning was to target the reddest seats, regardless of how popular the Democrat incumbent was,” said GOP strategist Brad Todd, who helped craft House Republicans’ strategy through his work with the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Todd offered a couple of reasons why Republicans thought the strategy could work.
“One, we expected a polarized national election where Republicans would have a better chance the redder the district,” he said. “And two, we felt it would help build a lasting majority if we elected Republicans in districts that wanted to elect Republicans for the long term.”
Other veterans defeated Tuesday were Reps. Chet Edwards (Texas), Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.). More junior Blue Dog lawmakers lost as well, including Reps. Frank Kratovil (Md.), Bobby Bright (Ala.), Travis Childers (Miss.) and Walt Minnick (Idaho).
Democrats also lost a handful of open seats that aren’t likely to be competitive anytime soon. That list includes a pair of open seats in both Tennessee and Arkansas, an open seat in southern Indiana and an open seat in Louisiana that the party didn’t even try to hold.
Bernie Pinsonat, an independent pollster with Southern Media & Opinion Research, said one reason why it will be particularly hard for Democrats to win back many of those districts is because the national party has lost touch with a large part of America.
“Most of the things that Democrats are pushing nationally are truly disliked by Southern voters,” he said. “We don’t like big government. We don’t like taxes. Unions don’t have a foothold of any consequences. ... The national Democratic Party is winning on the coast with those messages, but in the heartland — and especially in the South — their constituencies and the people that they kowtow to are not popular.”
The rise of the tea party this cycle certainly embodied that sentiment and provided an outlet for voter anger.
Pinsonat painted a bleak picture for what that means for Democrats in the cycles to come.
“I don’t have anything to throw out as even a bone to give them hope,” he said. “I don’t have anything in my polls that says, ‘If you do this, you’ll do better.’”
But Democratic pollster John Anzalone said Wednesday that the only real conclusion one could take from the 2010 cycle is that the Congressional battleground could continue to be large, and either party could take advantage of it in a given election.
“I think we’re now in a period of politics where over 100 seats are swing or targetable, and those don’t go away just because the Republicans won one year and the Democrats won the previous cycle,” he said.
Anzalone dismissed talk that there are certain seats Democrats have lost forever.
“Voters are fickle mistresses, and they have a more difficult appetite to satiate than it was 10 and 20 years ago,” he said. “Do I think that we’re going to have a wholesale resurgence two years from now in the Deep South? No. Do I think these seats are lost forever? No. As long as we have good candidates and a decent breeze at our back ... we’re going to see some of these seats in play.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.