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Elections both reflect a political party’s appeal and create a new face that ultimately recasts that image. And the midterm elections of 2010 are no exception.
For Democrats, “diversity” has been about ideology and region recently — proving to Americans that the party isn’t a bunch of liberals who live in big cities and on the two coasts. For Republicans, changing the party’s face has been about making it look more like America — electing more African-Americans, Hispanics and women.
Democratic strategists have talked proudly about the party’s Southern successes in 2006 and 2008, as well as their victories in Republican-leaning areas. That changed last week, and not only because the party lost many governorships in the heartland.
The House Democratic Caucus will look significantly different in January than it does now, after the defeat of dozens of moderate Democrats, and the party’s “new look” may be hard to change over the next few years.
Three dozen Democrats who occupied Congressional districts that were won by Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 were swept out by voters on Tuesday. Though some of the Representatives ousted — such as Virginia’s Tom Perriello and Ohio’s John Boccieri — weren’t easily described as moderates, many were.
The casualty list of recently elected moderates includes Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Walt Minnick (Idaho), Frank Kratovil (Md.), Travis Childers (Miss.), Glenn Nye (Va.) and Harry Teague (N.M.), while veteran Reps. Chet Edwards (Texas) and Gene Taylor (Miss.) also were defeated.
Bright, Minnick and Taylor voted against the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade, while Childers and Nye voted against both health care reform and cap-and-trade.
A handful of moderate Southern Democrats survived the Republican wave, such as Mike Ross (Ark.), Heath Shuler (N.C.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.), but most of the region’s Democratic Congressmen are either liberal African-Americans or white liberals, such as Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Kathy Castor (Fla.) and Lloyd Doggett (Texas).
The reshaping of the House Democratic Caucus makes it more difficult for Democratic leaders to present the party as a “big tent,” a strategy that party leaders employed over the past few years to contrast the Democratic Party with the GOP.
And a more liberal Caucus obviously creates the risk that Hill Democrats will move to the left, making it more difficult to attract moderates to the party and more difficult to win back some of the Congressional seats the party lost last week.
If Speaker Nancy Pelosi becomes Minority Leader, it will be hard for Congressional Democrats to improve their brand.
Even if House Democrats don’t move further to the left, the party will have an uphill fight in the near future to win back many of the districts it lost.
After all, if President Obama runs for re-election in 2012, he is likely to be a drag in most of the districts Republicans won last week, since he didn’t carry those areas in 2008. Moreover, the GOP’s gains in numbers of governors and state legislatures means the party can improve its standing through redistricting.
The other side of the coin is that Republicans look more diverse than they did just a week ago.
For the first time in more than a century, two African-American Republicans will serve in the House. Tim Scott was elected in South Carolina and Allen West was elected in Florida. Hispanic Jaime Herrera won in Washington state, while Francisco “Quico” Canseco is a new Member from Texas and Raul Labrador was elected from Idaho.
The governor-elect of New Mexico is Susana Martinez (R), a Hispanic woman. Her lieutenant governor-elect is John Sanchez (R), a Hispanic man. The governor-elect of South Carolina is Nikki Haley (R), an Indian-American woman who joins Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as the GOP’s second Indian-American governor. Rep. Mary Fallin (R) was elected governor in Oklahoma.
Of course, the Republican Party remains overwhelmingly white, both in its officeholders and its voters. The Democratic Party remains much more diverse when it comes to people of color.
But the GOP needed to start somewhere to change its “old white guy” image, and it must become a more diverse-looking party as the makeup of the American population — and the American electorate — changes.
Not all is well for the GOP, of course. While Republicans made small inroads in electing more diverse officeholders, the party remains weak in New England.
Last week, Republicans won just two of the region’s 22 Congressional districts, both of them in New Hampshire. The party holds three of the region’s 12 Senate seats (two in Maine and one in New Hampshire) and only Maine’s governorship, which Republican Paul LePage won with 38 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race.
Interestingly, Republicans rallied in New York, where they had been reduced to holding only two of the state’s 29 Congressional districts. Last week, they added five seats, and the GOP may well control the New York state Senate.
Last week’s results were stunningly good for the Republicans. But, like the short-lived Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008, 2012 could be very different, and long-term demographic changes in the U.S. electorate still offer great opportunities for the Democrats.