5 Myths About the Midterm Elections

  • Share
  • Read Later

Senator Joseph Lieberman, political strategist Karl Rove, and radio host Rush Limbaugh.

MYTH: Joe Lieberman's victory proves the netroots don't matter.
REALITY: The netroots had some key victories.

Liberal bloggers and their readers helped to swing the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, raising expectations that the midterms would turn this new generation of online activists into kingmakers. Yet in the midst of a Democratic wave, the netroots candidates failed to sweep, causing some pundits to claim that the netroots' influence continues to be overstated: "The Netroots Election? Not So Fast," editorialized The Nation. When Rick Perlstein tried, in The New Republic, to claim the election as a netroots triumph, Ryan Lizza replied in the magazine's blog that in addition to having the netroots' support, winning candidates also had the national Democratic party to thank, as it "dumped tons of money, strategic advice, and fundraising assistance into their races." What's the real takeaway? Of the 19 candidates that three of the biggest liberal blogs (Daily Kos, mydd.com and Swing State Project) raised money for, eight of the candidates won. This improves on the blogs' record from 2004, when Daily Kos picked out 16 campaigns to strongly support and raise money for, all of which lost. This cycle, bloggers may have been most strongly linked to Lamont, but they actually donated more money to Jim Webb of Virginia. Bloggers also made "macaca" into a scandal that helped sink Webb's opponent, George Allen. The netroots' record is probably too short to be judged definitively, but instead of looking at pure win/loss records, an examination of where the netroots put their emphasis suggests that the online community is either becoming more sophisticated in picking its candidates or is helping push long shots over the top.

MYTH: Democrats won because they carefully recruited more conservative candidates.
REALITY: Democrats won because their candidates were conservative about their message.

Moderate Democrats have celebrated the midterms as a victory for their brand of fiscal conservatism, foreign policy "realism" and a version of "traditional values." Certainly, Washington will see an influx of unorthodox Democrats: congressmen-elect Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Brad Ellsworth in Indiana are pro-life and pro-gun. But liberals won in some relatively conservative areas as well, and often after being largely ignored by national Democratic strategists. In the House, they include Kentucky's John Yarmuth (who supports universal health care and affirmative action), New Hampshire's Carol Shea-Porter (she was once escorted out of a Bush event for wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt) and Dave Loebsack (an anti-war liberal academic) in Iowa. The same is true of the Senate, where the new Democratic members include Vermont's Bernie Sanders, a socialist.

The fact is, voters by and large had little sense of where many of the candidates they elected stood on the issues. Democrats told voters far more about what they were against — the Republicans who run Washington — than what they were for. "This is a campaign that was run explicitly to be devoid of issues," says Amy Walter, an analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "They never had to outline their own positions on the issues, which makes it very hard to know exactly where these folks are coming from."

MYTH: The losses Republicans sufferend this election were no different than what you usually see in a President's sixth year in office.
REALITY: Redistricting minimized what might have been a truly historic shellacking.

The numbers alone do look like a typical midterm loss for the presidential party: 28 House seats, with 10 races still undecided. Republicans have clung to this math hard in recent days, with even Karl Rove pointing to electoral history to prove that things could have been worse. But Republicans spent most of the year boasting about how the redistricting of the past decade had made them all but bulletproof. Absent those new district lines, says the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein, "it could easily have been 45 or more." And there are other results that break with past patterns, Ornstein adds. Democrats did not lose a single seat — a feat the party had not accomplished since 1922. Even in the Republican sweep of 1994, the G.O.P. lost four of its open seats to Democrats. What's more, the wave swept all the way down the ballot — for instance, handing the New Hampshire House to the Democrats for the first time since 1922.

MYTH: The election was all about the war.
REALITY: It's the dishonesty, stupid.

Against traditional political wisdom, national themes did matter more than local loyalties and personalities in 2006. George Bush was far more likely to show up in a Democratic candidate's ad than a Republican's. Many Democrats have translated their victory into a mandate for change in Iraq; the day after the midterms, Sen. Harry Reid called for a bipartisan summit on the issue, saying "The President must listen and work with Democrats to fix his failed policy." But in the end, what appears to have mattered most was Congress' own behavior. Fully 74% of voters surveyed in exit polls ranked corruption and ethics as important in determining their votes; by comparison, 67% said that about Iraq. The lack of progress in Iraq helped nationalize the elections, but multiple scandals (Abramoff, Foley) appear to have driven home an urge for massive change. Mattis Goldman, who coordinated the campaign advertising for Democrat Sherrod Brown's successful Ohio Senate run, says that they chose to emphasize economic populism, change and fighting corruption. "If we had run a one-dimensional campaign just about the war," says Goldman, "I don't know how this election would have turned out."

MYTH: Republicans lost their base.
REALITY: The base turned out, they just got beat.

Right-wing pundits and some conservative politicians have argued that the midterms were, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, a "loss for Republicanism, not conservatism," and that genuine conservatives stayed away from the polls (or cast protest votes) to show their displeasure with a party that had strayed from first principles. Rep. Mike Pence (R-In.) is running for minority leader with a statement that posits, "I believe that we did not just lose our Majority — we lost our way. We are in the wilderness because we walked away from the limited government principles." But, says the White House's political director Sara Taylor, the difference between base turnout in 2002 and 2006 is within the margin of error. And independent exit polls show the same percentages of voters who called themselves "evangelicals," "white born-again Christians," "weekly church-goers," "Republicans" and "conservatives" as in 2006 as in 2004. "The base turned out," says Taylor, "but independents made up a larger share of the electorate and they broke very heavily Democratic."