With the Tea Partiers

Getting Below the Surface

The real story of the 2010 elections, in preparation for 2012.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

We of course know that the November 2, 2010, elections were historical on many different levels. The Republican gains of 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate dwarf the Republican Revolution of 1994 and double the historical average gains in the Senate for a party out of power. These gains were made despite a cash-strapped Republican National Committee (RNC), strategic decisions by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to spend $8 million in the long-shot California Senate race instead of Washington and Colorado, and the fact that the RNC, NRSC, and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had a zero ground game.

But what the November midterm elections did do was confirm and destroy some of the most talked-about conventional wisdom about the so-called Tea Party movement, as well as raise some warning flags for Republicans moving into the 2012 election cycle.

Tea Party activists revealed themselves to be, if not completely organized, at the very least politically pragmatic, engaged, and ready to press their agenda on the local, state, and federal level well after Election Day. How the relationship between the Tea Party movement and establishment Republicans will develop is going to be one of the most closely watched storylines of the next year. But if you dig deeper into what took place on Election Day, you notice some incredible missed opportunities for the Tea Party and Republicans to build on. And if Republicans expect to make a greater impact in 2012, those missed opportunities will have to be addressed.

The gains of November extend beyond the achievements at the federal level and are staggering in their implications. Consider for a moment the gubernatorial races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida -- all won by Republican governors in a redistricting year leading up to the 2012 presidential elections. But go past the gubernatorial races: in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Republicans won the secretary of state races, despite George Soros's S.O.S. project, and in Florida, Republicans retained that position. Again, having Republican secretaries of states in charge of the elections in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania will have considerable implications for 2012. With the governorships, secretaries of state, and state legislatures firmly in Republican hands in the three most important battleground states, Obama's path back to the White House in 2012 did not get any easier.

If you go deeper into the state-level elections, you see Republicans ran roughshod over the Democrats. On November 1, according to Ballotpedia.org, Democrats had a 783-member advantage over Republicans. On November 3, Republicans held a 523-member advantage, a swing of more than 1,300 seats. Across the country, conservatives and Republicans saw historic results: Republicans will hold the Minnesota state for the first time in history, the Alabama legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and the North Carolina legislature for the first time since 1870. In Maine, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, states that Obama won definitively in 2008, Republicans won control of both the state senate and house chambers. And those changes were not by one or two seats: in the Wisconsin state assembly, Democrats had a 52-46 advantage before Election Night. After the dust settled, Republicans now hold a 60-38 advantage. Even in states where Republicans did not gain the majority, they made significant gains: before the elections, Republicans in the Arkansas state house held only 25 seats of 100. Now they hold 45, with serious talk of some Democrats switching parties.

With 11 congressional districts to be reapportioned before 2012, the state legislative races will impact the federal level. Consider Texas, which stands to gain four congressional seats in 2012. Before Election Night, Republicans held a slim two-seat advantage in the Texas house. Now Republicans have a 99-51 advantage in the house, 19-12 in the senate, and hold the governor's mansion, enough of a margin to ensure reapportionment in favor of a Republicans should go more smoothly than in previous attempts.

These election results will have a long-term impact beyond redistricting and presidential races. Consider that roughly 70 percent of the 111th Congress began their careers at the state and local level. Some of our future congressional leaders will come from the state legislative victories of November 2.

THERE WERE MISSED opportunities. The easy ones to highlight are the U.S. Senate races in Colorado and Nevada and even Washington. (I'm sorry, Delaware was not a lost opportunity; Christine O'Donnell was a deeply flawed candidate, but Mike Castle would have lost the race as well.) Poorly run campaigns (Nevada), combined with mismanaged funds (NRSC) and a nonexistent ground game, caused many of the GOP Senate candidates to underperform by two to four points from their last pre-election poll numbers and final results.

What was also missed amid the euphoria and the staggering state-level gains is that more than 26 percent of incumbent state legislators, or nearly 1,300, were not challenged in the general election. In what was generally viewed as a wave election, it makes one wonder what could have happened had more state legislative candidates been groomed to run.

Much of the blame for a lack of contested races on the state level lies with Republican state parties. But this is where a happy by-product of the so-called "Tea Party" movement comes in: a growing network of grassroots conservative organizations not aligned with the Republican Party that are recruiting, training, and running candidates on the local and state levels, and preparing for the 2012 election cycle. These organizations are spreading the word about what is increasingly being called "constitutional conservatism," and news of what these organizations are undertaking and how they undertake their activities is what this column will be about moving forward. 

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About the Author

Ned Ryun is the founder and president of American Majority, a political training institution, and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @nedryun.