How Bad a Night for the GOP? The Seven Deadly Indicators

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l. to r.: Mannie Garcia / AFP / Getty; Getty; Gary Kazanjian / AP

Representatives John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Jean Schmidt of Ohio

Tonight's presidential election returns will be memorable, historic ... and a bit anticlimactic. When the two-term Republican President has a 20% approval rating and Americans prefer the Democrats' solution to just about every national problem, Americans aren't going to elect another Republican President — especially when the Democratic nominee has raised the most money in the history of money. Pundits will spend the night debating whether John McCain's campaign should have been cleaner or nastier, more disciplined or more freewheeling, more conservative or more centrist, and whether he should have picked a different running mate or let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin. But some of us thought this race was over in July, when McCain was still tied in the polls. There was only one way McCain could have made tonight suspenseful: he could have beaten George W. Bush in 2000.

Still, there should be some drama tonight. Don't focus on the Democratic push for 60 Senate seats, because the notion of a "filibuster-proof" majority is overblown. Even if the Democrats get 62 seats, they'll be short 60 votes on some issues, and if they settle for 58 seats, they'll get 60 votes on other issues. Still, some of the races could reveal something about the country, something about the Republican Party or just something:

The Blowout Seats If conservative Republicans lose Senate seats in Georgia, Kentucky or Mississippi, or the House seats covering all of Idaho and Wyoming, it's going to be a brutal night for the GOP. It might be time to stop talking about a "center right" country and start thinking about renaming the Republican Party. But if Oregon Senator Gordon Smith and Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman manage to win by running away from Bush six years after they won by running with Bush, Republicans can postpone their going-out-of-business sale.

North Carolina's Governor After tonight, there will be a war for the soul of the Republican Party, and if seven-term Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory can buck the Democratic tide by upsetting lieutenant governor Beverly Perdue in the race for governor, he should be part of any conversation about saving the party. He's conservative on social issues, so he isn't anathema to the GOP base, but he doesn't really care much about social issues; he told me he hadn't even thought about stem-cell research before it started showing up in Perdue's attack ads. He's a nice-looking, nice-talking pragmatist from NASCAR's hometown, and he's gotten a lot done there — he actually raised taxes to build a light-rail system that was wildly unpopular with conservatives but turned out to be a huge success. McCrory is the kind of Republican who can appeal to independents in metropolitan areas — the kind of voters that Republicans keep alienating with culture wars and reverse class wars and real wars.

Connecticut's 4th District This is another future-of-the-GOP race, because nine-term Congressman Christopher Shays is the last New England Republican left in the House, which is a bit like being the last Twinkie left in Rosie O'Donnell's pantry. Shays is effective and impressive, but he could be collateral damage when Barack Obama obliterates McCain in his district. This is the GOP's catch-22: The party's rush to the right has alienated independents, who have punished Republicans in moderate districts, which has pushed the caucus so far to the right that defeated moderates such as Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist and Iowa Congressman Jim Leach have endorsed Obama. It's hard to survive as a moderate Republican when moderates seem to hate Republicans and Republicans seem to hate moderates.

Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08."

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