Thursday, November 17, 2011

Things we learned from last week's election

It's so much easier to wax profound over an election once it's over.

For honesty's sake, I think I'm on record at various places online predicting that the Republicans would take control of the Senate, 21-19, that Del. Robin Abbott would win a squeaker in the 93rd House District and that Sen. John Miller would beat Republican Mickey Chohany in the 1st District -- and unlike some other people in my newsroom, I expected that 1st District race to be close.

It was and Miller won. Abbott lost a squeaker to Republican Mike Watson instead of winning one. In a higher turn out year, like a gubernatorial election, she probably would have won. And Republicans only forged a tie in the Senate at 20-20, although they are going to use Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote to act like they are in the majority. More on that later.

So what did we learn from the 2011 election?

A few things:

1. It's possible to hold an election where nobody wins.
Obviously the Democrats didn't win, they're down to 32 seats in the House of Delegates and lost the majority in the Senate, their last hold on power at the state level. But you can' t really say the Republicans won. They didn't capture a majority in the Senate, although they were widely expected to. In the weeks leading up to the election I heard and read Republicans predicting that they'd take 25 or 26 seats. There was a Tea Party group set up called "Beyond 21." But they didn't even get to 21.  In fact, of the 24 Senate races contested between the two parties (some of those contests being token opposition), Democrats won 16 and Republicans won only 8. Republicans were able to forge a tie in the Senate because they knocked off two incumbents, without any of their own incumbents being threatened, and because they won two open seats. But it's hard to say they won in the Senate when they lost 2/3 of the contested races.

2. Democrats in the House are in big trouble. For a long time.
While Democrats held their own or better in the Senate, the House races, which got far less attention, were a debacle. They're left with 32 seats. In contested House races, Republicans won 21-6-1 (Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, the longest serving member of the House in history beat both a Democrat and a Republican to win re-election).  It's scandalous that only 28 out of 100 House seats were contested between the parties and, again, some of those were token challenges. Democrats in the House suffered from a huge failure by the leadership, amplified by the Republican redistricting plan. They failed in recruitment so badly that no Republican incumbent member of the House was seriously challenged for re-election. Former House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong paid the prices for the "defense only" strategy. He lost. So did the other two targeted Democratic incumbents, Abbott and Del. Bill Barlow (D-64th). You can't win playing defense. It allowed the Republicans to take money they would otherwise have had to spend on incumbents and use it to win challenge and open seats. In the normal course of events, because Virginia is not a 68% Republican state, you'd expect the Democrats to start winning those seats back at the rate of 2-4 per election cycle. Problem is, that still leaves them in the minority when the next redistricting comes around and Republicans get to draw them back to square one. The best chance for a majority in the House Democrats have for the next 30 years is a Democratic landslide for governor. That hasn't happened in more than 25 years. After 30 years, demographic trends might give Democrats the majority back despite themselves.

3. 2011 was not 2010, so there's no reason to suppose that 2012 will be.
Republicans were predicting bigger gains than they got because they were fighting the last war. They were expecting the kind of Tea Party-fueled wave election that swept Republicans back into power in the House of Representatives last year. It didn't happen. One reason may have been that the Republicans in Congress have managed to damage the brand. While 2010's results were largely blamed on the unpopularity of President Barack Obama, the Republican House of Representatives is currently less popular than Obama. That suggests that Tea Party wave may have lost its momentum. So does current polling for the U.S. Senate race in Virginia in 2012, which shows former Gov. Tim Kaine, one of the president's staunchest allies, tied with former governor and Senator George Allen.

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