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Election 2010: An Inconsistent Wave

Election 2010: An Inconsistent Wave

By Sean Trende - November 9, 2010

One of the most striking aspects of the 2010 election is how uneven the wave was. Rather than striking down Democrats across the land, it spared most Democrats on the coasts and in cities. In New England, Republicans will pick up only two congressional districts, no Senate seats, and will actually lose ground in governorships. On the West Coast, the GOP finds itself picking up one or two congressional districts, and will be shut out of governorships and Senate seats.

And while the GOP performed well in congressional races nationally, and very well in state legislative races, the Democrats clearly beat the spread in top-of-the-ticket races. Harry Reid and Michael Bennet defied the polls to win, and in governor races Democrats won victories in places like Oregon, Illinois, and California, states that looked like lost causes earlier in the cycle. Tom Tancredo looked like he was closing in Colorado. He lost by 12. This isn't quite what you'd expect in a wave year.

I think the first phenomenon is easily explained, and starts to explain the second. It isn't at all surprising that the wave failed to wash up on our coasts. People forget just how deeply blue California, Washington, and New England have become. As I noted here, Senate Republicans pulled off a pretty remarkable feat by even making races in these states competitive.

Think about it this way: in states that "lean Republican" - as measured by their PVI - the GOP won every Senate race but one (West Virginia.) In states that lean toward Democrats by two or more points, Republicans won half of the Senate races this year. Republicans simply aren't supposed to win races in D+7 states like California or Connecticut these days. They aren't even supposed to be competitive there.

It is much the same story in the House races. Due to gerrymandering and the overall Democratic nature of the states, there was only one district in the Pacific West and New England combined that was (1) held by a Democrat and (2) had demographics that leaned Republican. Right now, the Democrat leads there by only 500 votes.

Republicans picked up two of five districts that leaned Democratic by two points or less, and made competitive races in almost all 15 of the D+5 or better districts. Remember, for all the talk of Massachusetts' 10th District as an excellent GOP pickup opportunity, it was still a district that a Democrat expected to win by 10 points in a normal year.

But what about the second inconsistency in the wave? At the state legislative level, the tsunami was epic. It sent Democrats back to the 1920s, as they lost almost 700 legislative seats.

At the congressional level, it was also a very rough night for Democrats. Even though House losses weren't as bad as some polls suggested that they could be, Democrats nevertheless suffered the worst midterm losses since (depending on your measurement) either 1938 or 1922.

The Senate and governor's races were a different story. Even in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Minnesota, the GOP faced a disappointing result. In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey saw a large lead dwindle to low single digits; for much of the night it looked like he might lose.

Part of this is due to third party efforts and black swans - strong third-party showings almost certainly cost the GOP governorships in Minnesota and Massachusetts, while the pre-primary plagiarism implosion of the Colorado GOP frontrunner probably cost the GOP the Colorado governorship.

But ultimately, the Scott Brown phenomenon was not replicated nationwide because Republicans picked some problematic candidates, and this time, the Democrats had plenty of time to emphasize their shortcomings. This was particularly damaging to Republicans because Senate and gubernatorial candidates are naturally in the spotlight. When you get down to the congressional and other downticket races, it simply isn't possible to draw as much attention to candidates, absent a massive implosion.

Take Illinois. In that state, the GOP managed to pick up the President's Senate seat, as well as four House seats. At the same time, the GOP failed to knock off a deeply unpopular governor. Why was this?

Take a look at the following map. It shows counties where Republican Senate Candidate Mark Kirk ran ahead of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady in blue. Counties where Brady ran ahead of Kirk are depicted in red:

As you can see, Brady generally did better than Kirk downstate, while Kirk did better than Brady upstate. But as I explained early last year, for a Republican to win in Illinois, it is much more important to run well in the "collar counties" surrounding Chicago than to run well downstate. That's where the swing votes are located. Brady ran behind Kirk in every county in the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area except for Will County in the south. Ultimately, that's what did Brady in.

Kirk was a milquetoast moderate Republican. Although he had made some rather unfortunate exaggerations about his military service, his political positions were pretty well matched to the upstate constituency that swings Chicago elections.

Brady, however, hailed from downstate, and had uniformly conservative political inclinations to match. He didn't suffer from any major scandals, but was a bit of an ideological mismatch for the state. Looking at the counties where Brady ran behind Kirk, the most likely explanation is that the Democratic Governor's Association's advertisements emphasizing his socially conservative views took their toll. Even in a very red year, the state's blue fundamentals took over in that race.

We saw a similar story in Pennsylvania. Republican Pat Toomey, the GOP Senate candidate, ran well behind Tom Corbett, the party's gubernatorial candidate. Both Republicans were pretty conservative, but Toomey nearly lost as Corbett was winning by almost double digits, and as the GOP was picking up five Pennsylvania House seats.

It wasn't Toomey's social views that were problematic here. If that were the case, we'd expect him to run poorly in the Philly suburbs. That isn't what happened. Look at the following map, comparing Toomey's performance with Corbett's performance. Toomey ran behind Corbett in every county, so to get a sense of what went on here, we've shaded the counties bluer the further Toomey ran behind Corbett:

As you can see, Toomey's problems weren't in the Philadelphia suburbs. He ran about as well as Corbett there (except for Delaware County, which Toomey's opponent had represented in Congress for two terms).

But Toomey ran behind Corbett by double digits in most of the southwestern counties. This is especially noteworthy, because the Democratic gubernatorial nominee hailed from the Pittsburgh. You would have expected to see a Democratic bump in the gubernatorial race here, not the senate race.

This wasn't because of Toomey's social conservatism, which probably plays relatively well in Pennsylvania. Instead, Toomey was hammered relentlessly due to his economic conservatism and tenure as chairman of the Club for Growth. His outspoken support for free trade policies cost him dearly in the economically strapped, populist southwest. Note that Toomey also ran badly behind Corbett in industrial Erie and Lackawanna (Scranton) counties.

Finally, consider Colorado. It was a huge disappointment for Republicans at the top of the ticket. But downticket, they performed quite well, picking up two congressional seats, sweeping the statewide downticket offices (Secretary of State, Attorney General and State Treasurer) and flipping one of the state houses.

At the gubernatorial level, the conservative split between the inept GOP nominee Dan Maes and the ultra-conservative American Constitution Party nominee Tom Tancredo certainly didn't help the GOP. But the Senate race was a two-man affair. The GOP chose a controversial candidate in Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck.

Buck's outspoken statements on homosexuality (comparing it to alcoholism), his opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and his handling of a rape case in Weld County all were a bridge too far for the electorate in this swing state.

In the following map, we compare Buck's percentages to those of Walker Stapleton, a generic Republican who narrowly defeated a Democratic incumbent for State Treasurer. In the darkest blue counties, Buck ran four or more points behind Stapleton; the red counties show him running ahead of Stapleton to varying degrees:

As you can see, Buck performed as well as a "generic Republican" like Stapleton in the heavily Republican Western Plains (the eastern half of the state). He probably carried the 4th, 5th and 6th districts handily.

He ran a few points behind Stapleton in Denver and its suburbs. But the real problem for Buck came in the Western Slope counties. He was pummeled there, running as much as 22 points behind Stapleton (Archuleta County). Amazingly, this occurred in the very areas where Scott Tipton was ousting three-term Democratic Representative John Salazar.

These counties are the swing portion of the "C" that Democrats need to shade blue in order to win the state. It may be that swing Republicans here were turned off by Buck's statements, and left the Senate race blank (this is suggested by the huge Senate undervote in Archuleta County, which Tipton carried handily, and the fact that only 7,000 more ballots were cast in the Senate race than in House races statewide). Or it may be that Buck's statements riled up liberals here, who turned out en masse just to vote against him.

Regardless, it's clear that candidates still matter a good deal in elections, and plenty of voters in places like Pennylvania, Illinois, Colorado, and Nevada were clearly willing to evaluate those races individually and split their votes where they felt it necessary.  There's also no single prescription for the parties here as the candidates' "problems" were unique to each state:  Mark Kirk might have actually run worse than Toomey in Pennsylvania.  We're a large and varied nation, and this makes it impossible for the parties to put together a broad, national coalition these days.  In the end, 2010's inconsistent wave was yet another manifestation of our increasingly polarized electorate.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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