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Democrats Made a Mountain Out of a Molehill

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Republican wave strengthened between May and November. That’s the nature of a “wave” election. It grows over time, as the entire nation focuses on a national event.

By the time November rolled around, voters saw the midterm elections as a national referendum on Pelosi and President Barack Obama, and for those increasingly unhappy with the performance of the administration and the Congress, voting Republican was the only alternative.

Guy Harrison, the NRCC executive director, pushed the Pelosi strategy throughout the year and through Election Day, and NRCC focus groups found that the Speaker was a lightning rod for voter anger.

“While swing voters in our focus groups were down on the president, they wanted to make excuses for him. No one made excuses for Pelosi or had anything favorable to say about her,” Todd said.

During the special election, Democratic attacks on Burns for “shipping jobs overseas” may have been effective. But come November, voters registered as independents were thinking like Republicans — they didn’t believe the Democratic attacks, or they figured there was limited risk supporting the GOP challenger given the Democrats’ performance while in power.

As for the two parties’ polls conducted during the summer and fall, as far as I can tell, usually reliable Republican pollsters produced accurate numbers and their turnout assumptions proved entirely reasonable. Democrats’ belief that GOP polling was wrong was, itself, incorrect.

The “Murtha factor” may well have helped Critz in the special election and again in November. Voters’ affection for the late Congressman may well have helped his former aide hold the seat even in a hostile environment, making the district more of an aberration than a test case.

But it’s also probably true that Critz’s campaign strategy had something to do with his survival.

“Democrats missed the most obvious lesson of the special election,” Todd said. “Mark Critz won by running as a brake pedal to his own party. The entire election was about putting the brakes on Obama and Pelosi.” Critz, of course, was pro-life and pro-gun, and he said he would have opposed the health care reform bill and Democratic cap-and-trade bill.

Critz won the special election by almost 8 points and in November by less than 2, while Republicans won more than 60 seats in the midterm elections. Clearly, Pennsylvania’s 12th district was an outlier.

“Winners always see what they want to see in special elections, and losers conclude nothing worked. It’s rarely that simple,” Todd said.

For my money, that’s the best lesson of all.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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