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Chuck Todd: Congress gets a case of the blues

Forget "red" and "blue." The country is now divided into four blocs: the Democratic Northeast, the Republican South, the populist Midwest and the libertarian West.  The National Journal's Chuck Todd explains
/ Source: National Journal

A Category 5 political storm hit the shores of the Northeast on Tuesday, realigning the region from a moderately competitive terrain between the two parties to solidly Democrat. The Northeast for congressional Democrats is now the mirror image of the South for congressional Republicans.

Like any strong storm, the force weakened away from its epicenter. The farther away from the Northeast, the more competitive the GOP performed. But despite hanging tough in other regions around the country, Republicans suffered their worst midterm defeat in a generation.

So how did this happen? Two words: Bush and Iraq.

These two issues, intertwined, drove independents to the polls and toward the Democrats. As one pollster said to me last week when he predicted this tidal wave: 2006 will be known as the "revenge of the independents."

He looks to be correct. The difference in just about every close race comes down to independent voters.

Turnout for the Republican base was good. Maybe not great like '04, but decent enough to hold some districts that I thought would fall in a wave (like those three seats in Ohio that the GOP somehow held).

Dems were only going to win Ohio-01, Ohio-02 and Ohio-15 with some deflation in the GOP turnout. But the base was there. What killed various Republican candidates everywhere else was their inability to woo the middle.

There was a time when I believed the Angry Independent wasn't going to vote in '06 because Democrats hadn't made a compelling case for change. If that had turned out to be the case, Republicans would have been safe in the Senate and certainly would have held the House losses to less than two dozen. But a combination of events, possibly triggered by the Mark Foley scandal, awakened the Angry Independent.

There is an important lesson for the GOP to learn when studying these returns. When a political party gets shellacked, the intra-party feud becomes dominated by the base, not the moderates. The base will swear, in this case, that the party needed more true-blue conservatives running, or that it should have been more conservative in its congressional governance. And then these losses would have been avoided.

There are some shreds of truth in that thinking, but the GOP will only isolate itself even more if it takes a turn to the right. Republicans will not regain the majority if they continue to grow away from the inner-suburban voter. Missouri and Virginia, for instance, sent that message loud and clear.

If congressional Republicans turn to the right, they risk creating more problems for themselves in the two battlegrounds of this country: the Midwest and the West. But I think there's a good chance that cooler heads will prevail for the GOP, and that they'll direct their ire toward the proper place: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Bush factor
There's plenty of evidence to suggest that President Bush may have been the deciding factor that killed the GOP's momentum in some key Senate races over the last week. One Republican consultant is convinced that Bush's last-minute visit to Missouri on behalf of ousted GOP Sen. Jim Talent did the incumbent in. According to the network exit polls, Democrat Claire McCaskill crushed Talent among those late-breaking voters who decided in the final three days (a full 11 percent of the electorate). Bush also made a last-minute trip to Montana, where anecdotal evidence indicates the president's rally for Republican Conrad Burns stopped the incumbent's momentum in Billings.

It's hard not to look at the White House and wonder if it was flying blind. For 18 months, there was evidence that this was going to be a tough midterm thanks to basic history (six-year itch, after all) and the war in Iraq. So why didn't Karl Rove attempt to do what he did in '02 and '04 and dictate the terms of the debate? It was clear this was going to be a national election, yet the White House stuck to its "stay the course" guns for way too long. Northeastern Republicans were desperate for Bush to pivot on Iraq and he just wouldn't do it. When he finally did, it was too late.

The political arm of the Bush White House doesn't usually miss this badly, but it appears this election was misjudged from the beginning. Maybe they believed all the "genius" books that were being written about them.

So if the Republicans clearly lost this election, does that mean the Democrats really won? Technically, yes. But Democrats should realize that the decisive voters in the key House and Senate races fired the Republicans, first and foremost.

Now, the Democrats are left with a coalition that's bigger and broader than any the party has had since the 1970s. In the Senate, the Democratic freshman class is a hodgepodge of old-time populists in the mold of Harry Truman or even Scoop Jackson. These new senators are pro-labor, but socially moderate. They all seem to evoke a hawkishness on defense even while criticizing Iraq..

The new House Democrats, for the most part, are fairly moderate. Ideologically, they do not match the House Democratic lions who are about to assume key chairmanships. It will be interesting to see how Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., handles the class of '06, because many members will begin their terms with a bullseye on their backs for '08. Those liberal House Democrats can't go overboard, or they'll hurt the very member that got them back to the gavels.

Final thoughts
Forget "red" and "blue." The country is basically divided into four voting blocs: the Democratic Northeast, the Republican South, the populist Midwest and the libertarian West. Democrats probably have a decent grip on those populist Midwest voters for a while (at least until the area transforms completely into a new economy). As for the libertarian West (home of the first state -- Arizona -- to reject a gay marriage ban), this is a region that is more up for grabs than it should be. And it's because the Republican Party has grown more religious and more pro-government which turns off these "leave me alone," small-government libertarian Republicans.

As for '08: Tuesday was a good night for John McCain and John Edwards. McCain's a "winner" because if the GOP realizes that its biggest impediment to winning elections is wooing back independents, then McCain's the natural heir for '08. Plus, the West is truly in play as a battleground region, making McCain more valuable to his party. As for Edwards, there were a lot of new Democrats elected to the House and Senate espousing his views on trade and the war. These folks aren't part of the Democratic Leadership Council. Barack Obama can also call himself a winner since he stumped for more Dem candidates than any other '08 prospect not named John Kerry. BTW, Kerry is simply relieved that he won't become the Steve Bartman of Democratic politics. (Cubs fans know who I'm talking about).

Campaigns did matter. Take a look at the House GOP incumbents who survived or won: Tom Reynolds (N.Y.-26), Deborah Pryce (Ohio-15), Steve Chabot (Ohio-01), Geoff Davis (Ky.-04) and Thelma Drake (Va.-02), to name a few. These were folks who prepared long and hard for '06 and it paid off.

Can Pelosi avoid being Newtered? I beat this topic to death 14 months ago, so I won't do it again. But House Democrats need to realize that what was done to Newt Gingrich between the '94 and '96 elections can be done to Pelosi. Frankly, it may be inevitable. It's probably Hillary Rodham Clinton's worst nightmare.

Howard Dean and the 50-state strategy live another day. Sure, Reps. Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer will get most of the credit for the Democratic success this year, but Dean has at least ducked blame. And since the party saw its fortunes improve in a lot of red states (which certainly kept the GOP busy in the final few weeks of the cycle), there's some vindication the Vermonster is going to be deservedly seeking.

In case you're wondering, the Talent loss is probably the toughest one for Republicans to take. It's their Harris Wofford -- the incumbent senator in '94 that many Democrats were more upset about losing over any other.

Just how will Sen. Joe Lieberman wield his power? The liberal blogosphere is caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. They don't want to threaten Harry Reid on seniority to the point that Lieberman gets tempted by Mitch McConnell, do they? BTW, the only Democrat bloggers should blame for Lieberman's victory is Ned Lamont who ran a terrible general election campaign.

The toughest job for Republicans in the next six months is going to be talking Northeastern Republicans out of retirement. Many are going to look at the bloodbath the GOP took in the region and wonder: "Am I next?"

Is anyone aware of how liberal Iowa and New Hampshire have apparently become? The four new members of Congress from these two very important '08 states indicate that a moderate Democrat may have a tougher time in the primaries than in years past.

Remember a while back when some of us thought the DCCC didn't do that great of a job recruiting candidates in Ohio? Well, Tuesday's results showed that campaigns and recruiting does matter, even in waves.

The exit polls didn't leak (kudos security) but they still skewed Dem.

Chuck Todd is a contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is .