For the Republicans, It Could Have Been Worse

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(l. to r.) Ed Reinke / AP ; Win McNamee / Getty

Mitch McConnell, left, and Michelle Bachmann

Election night was miserable for Republicans. They lost the presidency, at least five seats in the Senate and about 20 seats in the House. They are officially out of power. But for those of us who considered Barack Obama a shoo-in and a Democratic wave inevitable, the Republican showing seems almost impressive. (See pictures of John McCain's campaign farewell.)

Looking back at our "Races to Watch" series, just about all the conservative Republicans in traditionally red territory held seats needed by the GOP to avoid a blowout: Senators Roger Wicker in Mississippi, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and, probably, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, along with House members John Shadegg in Arizona, Cynthia Lummis in Wyoming and the Diaz-Balart brothers in Florida. It looks like graft-convicted Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska will somehow retain his seat long enough to get expelled, and his ethically and temperamentally challenged porkmate, Don Young, was re-elected as well; Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota survived her McCarthyite rant on Hardball, and Ohio's similarly obnoxious Jean Schmidt once again avoided a well-deserved early retirement. Republicans even ousted four first-term Democrats before they could get entrenched in deep-red districts — not only the clearly doomed Casanova Tim Mahoney of Florida, but Nancy Boyda of Kansas, Dan Cazayoux of Louisiana and Nick Lampson of Texas. (See the Top 10 video campaign moments.)

Democrats did knock off a few fire-breathing right-wing targets: wacky Bill Sali of Idaho, who protested a minimum-wage hike by introducing a bill to repeal the law of gravity; Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, who once declared gay marriage the greatest threat to America; Tom Feeney of Florida, an escapee from the Abramoff scandal; and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who ran ads calling her Christian opponent "godless." They also defeated some impressive Republicans who could have helped lead the party out of the wilderness, like moderate Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, conservative Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire and pragmatic Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, who had hoped to swim upstream into the governor's office. (See pictures of 60 years of election-night drama.)

Still, it could have been worse. After eight ugly years of AIG, WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Enron, Blackwater, freedom fries, yellowcake, record deficits, Fannie and Freddie and Brownie, Mark Foley and Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay, the Republican Party should qualify for a bailout. Retiring GOP Congressman Tom Davis memorably declared that if Republicans were a dog food, they'd be pulled off the shelves. Their usually well-funded candidates were badly outspent this cycle, but they've survived to fight for more kibble in the future. (See the screwups of Campaign '08.)

Here are a few of the races that might help determine that future:

Minnesota and Oregon Senators: The Chameleons
The two most important seats that were up for grabs were the Senate battles in Minnesota and Oregon, where Republicans Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith tried to run away from Bush just six years after running on his coattails. Though the Oregon race has been called in favor of Democrat Jeff Merkley, it says something about the endurance of the GOP that both of these races were so close. Obama won double-digit victories in both states, and Coleman and Smith are both milquetoast pols who did much less than McCain ever did to distance themselves from the President until his low approval ratings began to threaten their re-elections. Smith was so desperate to distance himself from the GOP that he ran ads touting his cooperation with Obama. And now Coleman has a better-than-even chance of returning to Washington, where he will surely rediscover his old party identification. It's an uninspiring but potentially effective political model for back-bench Republican Senators: follow the leaders for five years, then scramble back to the middle before re-election.

Kansas District 2: How Republicans Can Come Back
In 2006, Democratic centrist Nancy Boyda upset GOP conservative Jim Ryun in this reliably Republican district, portraying Ryun as an extremist in a Democratic year. This year, Ryun tried to reclaim his seat — but lost in the Republican primary to state treasurer Lynn Jenkins, who's a lot closer to the political center. Now Jenkins has ousted Boyda in another Democratic year, and has probably assured herself a safe seat. America has plenty of conservatives, but there are only so many places where Republicans can win by appealing exclusively to their base. (See pictures of Sarah Palin.)

Michigan District 7, Maryland District 1: How Republicans Can Disappear
This is the flip side to the Jenkins story. In 2006, conservative Republican Tim Walberg upended moderate Republican incumbent Joe Schwarz in a primary with help from the anti-tax Club for Growth, then claimed his seat in another reliable GOP district. But in 2008, Schwarz endorsed Walberg's Democratic opponent, Mark Schauer, who portrayed Walberg as an extremist and is now heading to Washington. The same thing may happen on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Club for Growth conservative Andy Harris successfully primaried moderate Republican incumbent Wayne Gilchrist, who then endorsed Frank Kratovil, the Democrat who appears to be headed for victory. Gilchrist is a national environmental leader, a true maverick and an extremely likable guy who was always a good fit for his district; if the Republican base isn't going to tolerate deviation from right-wing talking points, it's not going to have a lot of power in places like Michigan and Maryland.

Indiana Governor: The Future of the Party
Mitch Daniels was a somewhat tragic figure as President Bush's budget director, a policy-wonk, small-government conservative who found himself carrying water for a politics-driven, big-government budget buster. His aides almost had to strap him down to get him to sign a White House–directed letter supporting the corporate-welfare farm bill of 2002. But as Indiana's governor, he's gotten to do things his own way, privatizing roads, expanding health coverage, even supporting tax increases to get his state's fiscal house in order. His tough-love measures were unpopular for a while, but after he cruised to re-election while Obama won his state, he's got to be part of the conversation about future Republican leaders — especially as he's a former Reagan aide and drug-company executive who cares about policy and knows what he's doing. (See the Top 10 ballot measures.)

California Proposition 8, Florida Amendment 2: The Last Gasp
It looks like California's gay-marriage ban is going to pass by a slim margin, which means that after 18 years of love, my pals Jed and Eric might have to settle for a week-and-a-half of wedded bliss. My home state of Florida already has a gay-marriage ban, but just to be safe, the electorate added it to the state constitution — and not by a slim margin. It's going to be harder for the next generation to repeal these bans. But the next generation will repeal them because the mainstream is shifting as Americans get more comfortable with homosexuality every year. A July poll found that a shocking 75% of Americans believe gays should be able to serve openly in the military, up from 44% in 1993. Republicans already have a long-term demographic problem, with the country getting browner and minorities flocking to the Democrats. The GOP will be able to gin up its base with gay-marriage peril for only so long before they have a tolerance problem too.

Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08."

See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.