The revolution is over.
After 12 years of GOP control of both chambers of Congress and a majority of American governors' offices, the Republican era has finally imploded. And while it was accelerated by self-inflicted wounds from bribery and a child-predation scandal, the Republican demise was chiefly caused by a congenital self-denial about the growing disconnect between the party's pursuit of power and the inability to deliver on its promises. Simply put, the GOP could no longer sustain a majority that elevated public relations over policy performance, mantra over management.
Despite their defeat, Republicans will attempt to fashion a sort of "pre-visionist" history of why their reign ended. The same folks who are all too happy to brag about mandates that exceed the actual winning margins -- or in Bush's case six years ago, a negative margin -- have both the media means and ideological motive to re-cast their defeat as if it were an indirect validation of their ideas and policies. They scoff that Democrats didn't win so much as the Republicans lost. With the Iraq War dragging down the approval ratings of President Bush and Congress, there is certain, undeniable truth to this claim.
But a companion narrative is also developing, one suggesting that Democrats won by running as conservatives or at least centrists. Fingers point to such pro-life winners as Pennsylvania's Bob Casey in the Senate or North Carolina's Heath Shuler in the House, as if these victories are representative. The media, in fact, were echoing this idea before all the votes were counted. "In their push to win back control of the House, Democrats have turned to conservative and moderate candidates who fit the profiles of their districts more closely than the profile of the national party," began one late-October New York Times profile of Shuler and a few other cherry-picked House candidates who ran in red states. "The Democrats have come a long way since they prevented Bob Casey from speaking at their 1992 convention," declared Joe Scarborough, the afternoon of the election. "And they're gonna win because of it."
Man-bites-dog reportage may make for interesting commentary, but it ultimately misrepresents the prevailing patterns and results of the 2006 midterms. As even the most cursory look at the electoral map shows -- as does a fuller portrait of new Democratic faces soon to arrive on Capitol Hill -- the notion of a conservative-centrist Democratic renaissance is fictitious. To invert the title of this year's blockbuster environmental documentary, it is a convenient untruth.
Indeed, the most notable fact about the Democrats' gains this year is that they chiefly occurred not in the South, but in the North and West. That hardly portends a rightward shift within the victorious Democratic Party.
Among the party's top 50 or so house contenders this cycle, the Democrats fielded three candidates named Murphy. Two won and a third lost, but this trio of Irish Catholic lawyers are indicative of who -- and where -- the Democrats found their new majority.
Let's start with Pennsylvania's Lois Murphy, the only of the three to lose this year. Her defeat was doubly painful, since Lois also lost narrowly in 2004 to Republican Jim Gerlach. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Murphy was trying to dislodge
Gerlach -- whom the National Journal ranked the 35th most liberal Republican elected to the 108th Congress -- from the state's Sixth District, one that both Al Gore and John Kerry had carried. Murphy, who is a 42-year-old wife and mother of two, criticized Gerlach for not protecting the environment, opposing the minimum wage, siding with the oil companies, and voting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Fellow suburban Philadelphian Patrick Murphy, a 32-year-old lawyer and Iraq War veteran, defeated Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in the nearby Eighth District, which Gore and Kerry also won. Murphy positioned himself to the right of Fitzpatrick on border issues. But his Web site proudly highlighted his pro-choice and pro–stem cell research positions and his support for making college tuition tax deductible. In his ads the former 82nd Airborne paratrooper denounced Fitzpatrick as a "cheerleader" for Bush's "open-ended" Iraq policy.
Finally, there is Chris Murphy, a clean-cut state legislator who was still in elementary school when Nancy Johnson, the 12-term Republican stalwart whom he vanquished this November, was first elected to Congress from western Connecticut's Fifth District. One of the most liberal Republicans in the House, Johnson opposed the bans on partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage. In classic populist fashion, Murphy criticized Johnson for taking pharmaceutical industry money and voting for the costly Medicare prescription drug bill, and also for "toeing the line" with Bush on Iraq while voting against veterans benefits and military pay raises.
All three Murphys ran clearly and unambiguously to the left of these moderate Republican incumbents who represent affluent, suburban districts. This pattern -- progressive Democrats defeating moderate Republicans -- is hardly limited to Murphys.
Data collected by Media Matters for America on the 2006 Democratic nominees in the most competitive House contests show that the vast majority opposed privatizing Social Security, supported increasing the minimum wage, and backed embryonic stem-cell research. Only a handful described themselves as "pro-life." And of course, though they were of many minds when it came to the proper solution for Iraq, they were uniformly critical of the Iraq War.
A pack of Zell Millers this was not.
In a prescient pre-election analysis, The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray captured the frustrations of one at-risk Republican moderate who found himself suddenly under fire. "I am the same candidate I was two years ago, four years ago, six years ago," embattled New Hampshire Republican Charlie Bass complained to a group of state business leaders at a local tech plant. "I know my constituents, and they know me. [But it's] a terrible year to be running for re-election."
Terrible, indeed: Paul Hodes seared Bass, 53 percent to 45 percent, to become part of the Democratic freshman class of the 110th Congress. Joining Hodes will be Carol Shea-Porter, a militantly anti-war candidate, who shocked everyone by beating Republican Jeb Bradley to snag New Hampshire's other House seat.
What is the larger meaning of the 2006 Democratic wave? Pulling back the lens a bit, what one sees is the eventuation of a regional realignment that began a half-century ago and is now nearing its conclusion. That realignment commenced with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which led to the inevitable conversion of Dixiecrats into Republicans -- first at the presidential level in the 1960s and 1970s, then at the congressional level in the 1980s and 1990s, with ongoing Republicanization further down the ballot along the way.
The Republicans' "southern strategy" -- initiated by Barry Goldwater, accelerated by Richard Nixon, expanded by Ronald Reagan, and perfected by George W. Bush -- is now a fait accompli, and at every level of government. Prior to this year's election, the Republicans held a greater share of Senate, House, and governors' seats in the former Confederate states than the Democrats did in the dozen northeastern states from Maine to Maryland. In fact, the percentage of northeastern House and Senate seats that Democrats controlled following the 2004 elections, when John Kerry won all 12 of those states, was basically the same as it was after the 1968 elections in which Nixon carried Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Why haven't the Democrats been able to maximize congressional and gubernatorial control over the blue presidential regions of the country? The persistent bulwark to Democratic consolidation of the Northeast, and especially the Midwest, has been the stubborn retention of seats by Ford- and Rockefeller-style Republicans.
Pairing fiscal prudence -- a term once associated with the Bush family -- with social moderation, these self-described "Main Street Partnership" Republicans have frustrated Democratic hopefuls across the Rust Belt for decades. The list includes governors like Connecticut's Jodi Rell and the outgoing George Pataki of New York; senators such as Maine's female duo of Susan Collins and Olympia Snow; and a parade of House members.
The 2006 elections were a corrective, an overdue if not inevitable Rust Belt realignment brought upon by the rightward shift of American policy and politics led by the southernization of the Republican Party. Republican losses were fueled by the return of Catholic "Reagan Democrats," a labor resurgence, and the pivotal power of inner suburban voters. The Democratic pickups across the Northeast and Midwest were sufficient to give the Democrats majorities in the House, the Senate, and among governors for the first time since the 1994 revolution.
Democrats netted four new governors -- Maryland's Martin O'Malley, Massachusetts' Deval Patrick, New York's Eliot Spitzer, and Ohio's Ted Strickland -- while holding all their existing seats. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island produced half of the six new senators Nevada's Harry Reid needed to become the new majority leader. In the House, Republicans suffered 20 losses in the Northeast-Midwest corridor, five more than Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi needed to forge a new governing majority. With those twin double Republican losses in Connecticut and New Hampshire, Connecticut's Chris Shays becomes the only Republican congressman in all of New England.
Without losing their grip on either the Maryland or New Jersey Senate seats, the Democrats also added four new Rust Belt senators: Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, and Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse. Casey's victory over Rick Santorum is least surprising because Santorum was the most glaring ideological misfit, measured against his own state's politics, in the entire Senate. More telling were the defeats of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Ohio's Mike DeWine.
Chafee, a pro-choice moderate, was the lone Republican senator to vote against the October 2002 Iraq resolution. Though he signaled his disgust with Bush by casting a 2004 write-in vote for president for Bush's father, the state's liberal voters could abet Chafee's soft partisanship no longer. After his defeat, he indicated that he might switch parties.
The moderate DeWine was defeated by Brown, who is the unofficial poster boy for economic populists. Proud driver, when home in Ohio, of a beat-up Thunderbird with a "NAFTA + CAFTA = SHAFTA" bumper sticker on the back, Brown instantly becomes Congress' leading voice against free trade and the closest thing in the Senate to an heir to Paul Wellstone.
In the House, the casualties included some surprises, like Arizona's ragingly right-wing J.D. Hayworth, who will no longer represent the posh Glendale golf resorts in the ever-sprawling Phoenix suburbs. But Hayworth is an outlier. Based on the National Journal's ideological rankings of members of the House of Representatives, 10 of the 28 most liberal Republicans were taken down. Along with Connecticut's Johnson (No. 3) and New Hampshire's Bass (No. 12), a total of five of the dozen most liberal were toppled, including Iowa's Jim Leach (No. 1) and Connecticut's Rob Simmons (No. 7). The retiring Sherwood Boehlert of New York (No. 6) saw his seat taken by a Democrat, too.
The meaning of these defeats is that the Republican caucuses will now be further dominated by Southern-based cultural conservatives, while the ascendant Democratic majorities will be infused with new liberal blood. This will push the Democratic caucus to the left as it expands -- particularly on economics and foreign policy -- and the Republican caucus to the right as it shrinks. Those hoping for an end to partisan polarization on Capitol Hill, or between Congress and the White House, may be sorely disappointed.
The 2006 elections produced a stunning reconfiguration of regional partisanship. Nancy Pelosi will not only become the first female House Speaker, but the first since the 83rd Congress (1953-1954, when pre–Goldwater Republicans were in the majority) whose party holds a minority of southern House seats. Likewise, Nevada Senator Harry Reid's 50-plus–Bernie Sanders majority includes a very small minority (five of 22) of southern senators. Ninety percent of Reid's members are not from the South.
For the first time in half a century, the party of the South is the out-of-power party nationally.
A variety of meteorological metaphors have been used to describe 2006 -- tidal wave, hurricane, and earthquake. "Blizzard" is the most appropriate term for the 2006 midterms, however, for an old-fashioned Nor'easter blew through the Rust Belt.
Somewhere in the Republican heavens, Nelson Rockefeller must have finally let out a long overdue cackle on November 7, 2006.
Five decades ago, the patrician New York governor stood firmly as the bulwark against the Republican reincarnation to come. The embodiment of his party's northeastern establishmentarian wing, Rockefeller and his cohorts lorded over their party until the conservatives, tired of being ignored by the New Deal Democrats and dismissed by the GOP's complacent centrists, found their voice in a western maverick (with a southern following) named Barry Goldwater.
In 1960, at the "Compact of Fifth Avenue" meeting held in Rockefeller's Manhattan apartment, Rocky barricaded his party against the coming conservative tide by persuading presidential nominee Richard Nixon to agree to a 14-point plan that included a strong endorsement of civil rights. Nixon received 32 percent of the African American vote that year which, by today's standards, is a startling achievement for any Republican.
But Rockefeller's efforts were merely stopgap measures. After losing narrowly in 1960 to John Kennedy -- whose campaign circulated pictures in some white neighborhoods showing Nixon smiling with black children -- Nixon came back for a second crack at the White House eight years later. He had learned the lessons of his first, failed bid and those of Goldwater's intervening 1964 campaign. Abandoning any pretense of accommodation, Nixon's embraced the southern strategy and won the presidency.
By increments, that strategy has since produced two generations of Republican victories, with Nixon carrying only the White House, Reagan adding the Senate to his 1980 presidency, Newt Gingrich flipping both chambers of Congress in 1994, and George W. Bush adding the White House to that in 2000.
The first six years of the new century were supposed to be the final stage of Republican realignment. All the puzzle pieces were there -- control of all three branches; strategic, tactical, and rhetorical mastery; and, in September 11, a powerful realigning issue. But as presidents so often do, Bush overreached.
His cowboy foreign policy, coupled with "big-government conservative" spending and governmental intrusions from the start of life (stem cells) to the end (Terry Schiavo), may have appealed to his southern base. The rest of the country, however, wasn't buying it. This November, since they could only vent their anger about the war in Iraq and the direction of the country on the nearest Republican, the non-Southerners voted out their own. The great irony of the purge that progressives carried out in 2006 is that those largely Southern conservatives who were leading the Republican Party's downfall will survive to legislate another day, while many reluctant Rust Belt Republicans became unwitting victims. You can't say Rockefeller didn't warn them.
Thomas F. Schaller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Whistling Past Dixie.
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