The 2010 elections, so far: the biggest surprise is no surprise

First consider the House.  Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 House elections gave them fifty or sixty incumbents in districts that had not elected a Democrat in recent memory.  These seats were winnable for Democrats as long as Republican candidates were saddled with an extremely unpopular war (2006) or an economy in free-fall (2008).  2010 is the first time in six years that Republican House candidates in these districts were in anything resembling a fair fight. 

In that sense, there’s no need to make arguments about an unpopular president, a dismal economy, or policy overreach by the Democratic Caucus to explain why many junior Democrats are having such a hard time getting reelected in 2010.  Given their party affiliations, many are simply running for reelection in the wrong districts, lacking seniority or a record of district service sufficient to gain support from Republicans and independents, facing experienced, well-financed Republican challengers who in normal times would have captured the seat outright in 2006 or 2008.

The prospects for sizable Republican gains in the Senate are also not surprising.  While Democrats are defending 19 seats to the Republican’s 18, they have a disproportionate number of vulnerable incumbents.  For Republicans, the canonical incumbent running for reelection is Mike Crapo of Idaho, who faced no Democratic opposition in 2004 and whose 2010 opponent barely cleared 20 percent support in recent polls.   In contrast, the canonical Democrat is Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has cleared the 50 percent mark in an election only once, running in a state where forty percent of the population has moved there since the last election. These descriptions are nothing new; Reid was a poor bet for reelection two years ago, just as Crapo was expected to cruise to an easy win.

It is also hard to be surprised that Republican and Democratic candidates have made strong, sometimes angry appeals to the electorate, each casting themselves as a force for good and their opponent as misguided – or worse – and that a variety of individuals and groups have deployed time, money, and expertise in an attempt to elected some candidates and defeat others.  What, should we expect anything different?  Conflict is fundamental to elections.  Politics matters because Americans disagree about what they want government to do, and because candidates organize their campaigns around these disagreements.

The last two years have been an education in what an activist president with relatively disciplined majorities in both Houses of Congress can accomplish.  But they have also reminded Americans of their disagreements about the proper role of government in society and, in doing so, given Republicans a ready-made constituency of people who oppose some or all of Obama’s legislative achievements.  The events of the past two years have also shown that real differences exist between Republicans and Democrats.  If activists or contributors want to get involved, they have a clear sense of who is on their side and who is not. 

In sum, if 2010 tells us anything, it is to avoid over-analyzing a campaign or an election.  No doubt many observers will describe the 2010 midterms as a watershed event, a product of new, surprising, and powerful forces that will invariably shape the future direction of government policy.  Looking back over the last generation, it is hard to find an election that was not described in these terms – and equally hard to find one that validated such predictions.  No doubt there will be some surprising returns next Tuesday, but these will be the exceptions; in the main, our expectations of two years ago are likely to be confirmed.

William Bianco is a professor of political science at Indiana University, and Co-Chair of the Working Group on the Political Economy of Democratic Sustainability.