We all know that Independent voters were the deciding factor in this election. In fact, polling has shown that they have been the key factor in the last 3 national elections. Beyond that, however, and looking at the types of districts changing hands, one comes away with a much different perspective on the size and scope of these elections.
When first looking at the landscape of the 2010 Republican victories a pattern quickly emerges. For all of the districts that Republican candidates picked up, we won very few districts that would be considered Democrat territory. There were few pickups in Connecticut, Oregon or other typical left leaning states, places that you would expect Republicans to win in a landslide election.
In fact, the most Democratic district that we picked up this year is a D+4 on the Cook Partisan scale. PA-11 was held by Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat known for his earmark spending and his support of corporate bailouts. Not exactly a big reach.
Compare that to the two most recent wave elections: 2006 and 2008:
In 2006, the best Republican district that Democrats won was the TX-22 open seat, rated by Cook as a R+12 district, along with KS-2, which was rated R+9. In 2008 it was even worse, with Bobby Bright winning in a R+16 seat in Alabama and Walter Minnick winning a R+18 district in Idaho.
In both of those years you saw Democrats going deep into Republican territory and capturing heavily right-leaning seats. Seats that, in most cases, they would be unable to hold onto for long. In fact, historically that has been a sign of a wave election. Every time one has happened it has given the winning party seats deep in their opponent’s territory, and some of those seats quickly switch back to their natural party.
It’s not just that there weren’t a couple of standout districts this year that seems strange, the overall leaning of the districts we won was equally odd.
Of the 63 districts that Republicans picked up only 11 of them are rated as D+ districts by Cook. Let’s compare that to 2006 and 2008. In 2006, 19 of the 30 seats that Democrats picked up were R+ Districts and in 2008 an incredible 18 of the 26 Democratic pick up’s were R+ Districts.
While at first glance this ‘wave’ looks incredibly big (it’s hard to ignore a 60+ seat pickup) but in the context of reaching into Democrat territory, there is no depth to it. Looking at the average rating of the districts goes a long way to illustrating that fact. In 2006, the average partisan rating for Democratic pickups was R+0.72. In 2008, they stretched that rating to R+1.55. Meaning that on average, in 2006 Democrats won seats that were slightly Republican and in 2008 they went more than twice as deep into Republican territory. Neither is terribly surprising, that’s what happens in a wave election. The real shock comes looking at the 2010 average: the average GOP pickup was R+2.25.
So in the biggest ‘wave’ election in over 60 years, Republicans picked up mainly Republican seats. How is that possible?
It makes more sense when you look at the individual races. Not only were 82% of the districts that we picked up Republican leaning, but a lot of them were deep in Republican territory. 13 of the newly Republican districts have double digit partisan scores, including two (TX-17 and MS-04) that are R+20 districts. That’s 20% of the victories in districts that leaned Republican by double digits! So not only were we winning back Republican seats, but we were winning back heavily Republican seats. Not quite the way the media portrayed the evening’s story.
If this election isn’t quite what we were told it was, then what does it actually mean? There seem to be 3 main points that we can draw from this election:
1. This was not a mandate. Don’t get carried away. This is not the mandate that some might claim. Republican Districts went Republican. This wasn’t some over-whelming movement for Republican leadership. This election, while clearly having a lot of fiscal conservative overtones, was about Republican Districts coming home to their party, more than anything else. If we take it to mean more than that, will be back in the minority in no time.
2. A 2012 rollback isn’t a given. The good news about the GOP not winning a lot of heavily Democrat districts is that we are not now holding a large number of seats that will naturally shift back to the Democrats. After every ‘wave’ election there are a handful of seats that naturally switch back to the other party. They take a lot of money and effort with them that would be better spent on other races. We’re not faced with that problem. In fact, we haven’t even maxed out on the seats we can comfortably hold.
3. We left a lot on the table. After winning over 60 seats it seems natural to assume that we’re close to maxed out on Congressional seats as a party. The truth is we are still in a deficit. After this election, Republican’s hold 17 seats that are D+ rated districts. The most Democrat leaning district in the group is the IL-10 seat won by Robert Dold, at D+6.
On the other side, Democrats hold 25 seats that are R+ rated. The most Republican of them is UT-02, which is rated R+15. This includes the 12 seats they currently hold that are R+6 or greater! At the end of the day, Democrats still hold more of our seats then we have of theirs. Makes you wonder about the true depth of this ‘wave’ election, doesn’t it?
Written by Bill Lee and Bruce Harvie