A Turn to the Right

Republicans claim the House with a historic 60-seat pick-up.

After a long and often controversial campaign season, the mid-term election results are in and the Republican Party has much to be thankful for. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Republicans claimed the House of Representatives with a historic 60-seat pick-up, securing a majority of 235 to 181. Democrats retained control of the Senate after a six-seat loss to Republicans and a majority of 51 to 46, according to RealClearPolitics. Recognizing the chance for his party's redemption, a tearful John Boehner, the man expected to become the next speaker of the House, acknowledged Republican missteps and entreated President Obama to pursue real bipartisanship. The emotion from Boehner was startling, but to be sure, the battle was hard-won.

Despite immense White House investment in Joe Sestak, Republican Pat Toomey narrowly won the Pennsylvania Senate seat formerly occupied by Arlen Specter (51% to 49%). Both President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden had made multiple trips to campaign on behalf of Sestak, but to little avail. While Sestak defended his support of the Obama administration’s policies, including his vote for ObamaCare, the congressman may have benefited more by taking a page from West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin’s playbook. Now Senator-elect Manchin, the governor turned heads by fully repudiating his public endorsement of ObamaCare and airing a campaign ad in which he fired a rifle at a mock cap and trade bill, a measure which the president supports.

Perhaps more disappointing for the administration was the loss of the president’s former Senate seat in Illinois. Republican Representative Mark Steven Kirk defeated Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in another close race. Although both candidates were plagued by ethical problems, Giannoulias’s close affiliation with Obama and the omnipresent Democratic establishment of Illinois were not enough to secure a victory against Kirk, a fifth-term congressman.

Two three-way races, both strongly influenced by the Tea Party movement, have commanded significant national attention throughout the election. Much to the Democrats' chagrin, rising Republican star Marco Rubio defeated both the Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek and Republican-turn-Independent candidate Charlie Crist in the race for Florida’s Senate seat. After losing the Republican primary to Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, Governor Crist pursued the seat as an Independent and tried desperately to characterize Rubio as a dangerous right-wing extremist. In the end, Crist did not find the same success as Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was also forced off the Republican ticket by a Tea Party favorite. Murkowski ran as a “write-in” candidate in the Alaska Senate race after being defeated in the Republican primary by the Palin-endorsed newcomer Joe Miller. After 70% of the vote had been counted, Murkowski led Miller by a four-point margin. Although a winner may not be officially decided for days, the situation looks very good for Murkowski, who would be Alaska’s first successful write-in candidate.

Despite widespread anxiety over unemployment and the economy, notable CEOs did not fare well against entrenched politicos in this year’s election. In the way of governors, Republican candidate Meg Whitman was defeated by Democrat Jerry Brown for California governor. Brown had previously served as California’s governor from 1975-1983 (and is returning for his third term) while Whitman was the former CEO of eBay. In Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, lost the state’s Senate race to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal will be succeeding retiring senior Democrat Chris Dodd. Not to be overlooked, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California maintained a close but comfortable margin over her Republican challenger, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Although Fiorina had not yet conceded as of the predawn hours of Wednesday morning, Boxer enjoyed a five-point lead.

Obama retains an important ally in the Senate -- embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will retain his Nevada Senate seat against Tea Party-backed rival, Sharron Angle. Although pre-election polls had shown Angle slightly ahead of Reid and favorable among Independents, the final vote hovered at 50% to 45% in Reid’s favor. The outcome of the Reid-Angle race does not come without surprise. Angle had out-raised Reid in campaign funds and the languishing state economy had made Reid extremely vulnerable. Indeed, coupled with Reid’s strong disapproval ratings and association with the Obama agenda, many have conjectured throughout the campaign that had Reid faced a stronger opponent, a Republican victory would have been assured. Instead, Angle seems to have gone the way of Tea Party darling and Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell who, although close at the end, could not produce a victory in Delaware. If anything, the Tea Party factor in the 2010 election seems to have been a “wild card," with unpredictable success. Although not enough for Sharron Angle, who was sometimes maligned by the association, Tea Party support did work in the favor of Marco Rubio and for Kentucky Congressman Rand Paul, now Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul.

At the dawning of Barack Obama’s presidency, commentators on the Left had declare the Republican Party moribund. Encouraged by optimistic polling trends, which seemed to reflect an electorate becoming steadily more liberal, left-wing pundits were openly exuberant at the prospect of an imminently defunct GOP. Instead, a mere 21 months later, what we have is a Republican Party making election gains of historic proportions. How did we get here?

To construe the outcome of the mid-term election as a mandate for a new conservative era would be a mistake. In fact, immense losses suffered by Democrats are suggestive of a party that has fallen under its own weight -- and victim to its own myopia. With the past two elections falling handily to Democrats, and especially with the incredible popularity of the Obama administration in the 2008 election, Democrats interpreted a call for bolder, more proactive government. In more hospitable circumstances, the “hope and change” program might have been successful. But a series of heretofore inconceivable private sector bailouts, promises of quick government fixes, a protracted recession, and lingering unemployment careened the national focus toward fiscal concerns. The Democratic establishment, however, seized upon the carte blanche provided by its control over both the legislature and the executive office, and pursued an ambitious agenda. Perhaps appropriate for 2006, but not appropriate for 2010. In this sense, when Democrats lament their “inherited” misfortunes, they are then largely correct, but for their failure to prioritize wisely in light of these circumstances, they have justly suffered the consequences.

Broadly speaking, the overreach of the Obama administration and the Democratic establishment spurred the conservative sector of the electorate to action and disenchanted huge swathes of independent voters. What Democrats lacked in enthusiasm, therefore, they also lost in the indispensable and mercurial Independents. It is a mighty but tenuous margin for Republicans, but with the wealth of new figures and their noteworthy diversity, it is one that may provide the opportunity to change the face of the party for many elections to come.