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. 


Tags Harry Reid Mike Crapo
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