Campaign Crawlers

The Republican Mandate

The extent of the Party of No's huge victory in the House -- now at 63 seats -- has yet to sink in.

By 11.24.10

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Ann Marie Buerkle was outspent by a 5-to-1 margin in her campaign against incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei in New York's 25th district. Maffei was a phenomenal fundraiser -- of his $2.7 million total, the freshman Democrat collected more than $1.2 million from PACs -- and the district had voted for Democrats in the past three presidential elections, delivering 56 percent for Barack Obama just two years ago.

When Buerkle first declared her intent to run for the seat, she said, "People looked at me like I was crazy. They said, 'He's got so much money. How are you going to beat him?'"

But beat him, she did. Yesterday, after all the absentee ballots had been counted and Buerkle still maintained a 567-vote lead, Maffei conceded. Combined with a win for Blake Farenthold in Texas -- where Democrat Rep. Solomon Ortiz finally conceded Monday in the 27th District -- Buerkle's victory brings to 63 the number of House seats gained by Republicans in the mid-term election. That's the GOP's biggest net gain in any election since 1938, and gives Republicans 242 House seats -- the most they've held since 1949. Their majority is bigger by 12 seats than the one captured by Newt Gingrich's GOP in 1994.

The sheer size of the electoral tsunami that swept Buerkle and scores of other Republicans into Congress has been underplayed by the major media, which have preferred instead to focus on the failure of the GOP to capture a Senate majority. But the electoral math always favored Democrats in this year's Senate campaign, and Republicans still scored important Senate pickups in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, North Dakota and Wisconsin. (Would anyone have bet two years ago that the GOP could defeat Russ Feingold in 2010?) The survival of Harry Reid as Senator Majority Leader -- the only good news for Democrats in the mid-terms -- was predictably the big story in the liberal press in the immediate aftermath of Election Day. And so the enormous Republican gains in the House have not yet been fully comprehended by most Americans.

Part of the reason for this is that so many races remained undecided on Election Night. By the time most people went to bed on Nov. 2, it was clear that the GOP had recaptured the House majority, but the extent of their victory was not yet known. Even a week after the election, nine contests still remained undecided, and many Democrats delayed conceding in close races. It was not until last Wednesday that Rep. Melissa Bean conceded to Republican Joe Walsh in the 8th District of Illinois, and not until Friday that Rep. Bob Etheridge conceded to Renee Ellmers in North Carolina's 2nd District. This slow-motion trickle of additional GOP pickups meant that the big victory didn't produce the kind of jaw-dropping astonishment it should have inspired.

How big was the wave? Consider the example of Republican operative Vince Kreul, 26, who worked for three losing congressional candidates during the 2010 campaign season -- first for Rick Barber in Alabama's 2nd District, then for Les Phillip in Alabama's 5th District, and then for Kerry Roberts in Tennessee's 6th District. All three of those candidates lost their primaries, but the GOP candidates who won those primaries (Martha Roby, Mo Brooks and Diane Black, respectively) all won on Nov. 2, capturing seats that had previously been held by Democrats. And Vince Kreul also ended up with a winner, working for the campaign of Morgan Griffith, the Republican who defeated 14-term incumbent Democrat Rick Boucher in Virginia's 9th District.

The defeat of Boucher, who had kept his rural coal-country district in the Democrat column for 28 years -- even surviving the 1994 Republican landslide -- was a clear sign of just how deep the GOP wave was. It continued a trend of partisan realignment in the South, defeating long-serving Democrats in districts that had not elected a Republican since Reconstruction. In Florida's 2nd District, Steve Southerland defeated seven-term incumbent Allen Boyd by a margin of more than 30,000 votes. In South Carolina's 5th District, Republican Mick Mulvaney won by more than 20,000 votes over 14-term incumbent John Spratt, powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The wave was also a wipeout for the "Blue Dog" Democrats, defeating 28 of 54 members of the moderate coalition, including Indiana's Barron Hill, who lost the 9th District by a 10-point margin to Republican Todd Young, and Mississippi's Gene Taylor, a 10-term incumbent who lost the 4th District by 10,000 votes to Steve Palazzo.

Democrats seeking to minimize the extent of their defeat pointed out that most of their losses involved House seats in "swing" districts that had been lost by the GOP in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Maffei, for example, was one of 22 first-term Democrats (out of 26 elected in 2008) to lose re-election. "Republicans won by taking back the very seats we had took from them," D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a Nov. 11 post-election panel discussion at Georgetown University. True, but the wave also defeated a dozen Democrats who had been in Congress for at least a decade, including several incumbents who had been in office more than 20 years. In Pennsylvania's 11th District, 13-term Democrat Paul Kanjorski lost by a 10-point margin to Lou Barletta. In Missouri's 4th District, 17-term Democrat Ike Skelton was beaten by Vicky Hartzler. In Minnesota's 8th District, 18-term Democrat Jim Oberstar was edged out by Chip Cravaack.

Despite the stunning size of the Republican victory, pundits and pollsters were quick to declare that the election did not represent a "mandate" for the GOP. For example, pollsters quickly produced surveys claiming that a majority of Americans favored preserving the Democratic health-care law. Yet that bill was enacted without a single Republican vote and repealing it was the centerpiece of winning campaigns for scores of GOP challengers like Buerkle, who overcame enormous disadvantages to defeat Maffei.

In the final weeks of her campaign, Buerkle said in an interview yesterday, the incumbent Democrat was reportedly spending nearly a quarter-million dollars a week on TV ads attacking her. "We decided we couldn't beat him on the money, but we could beat him with the grassroots," she said of her strategy. "We did 21 parades, 20 town halls, Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce.… This campaign has really been a victory for the people, to show that the people could make a difference."

Those people did make a difference, and in the process made laughingstocks of pundits who said they couldn't do it, chief among them E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

"It will be very hard for Republicans to take the House if they don't break the Democrats' power in the Northeast -- and they still have to prove they can do that," Dionne wrote five weeks before Election Day, in a column that featured this quote from Dan Maffei: "When we do retain the majority… people are going to look at the map and see that the Northeast held." Dionne predicted: "Absent a Republican wave of historic proportions, [Maffei's] seat now seems out of the GOP's reach."

Unfortunately for Maffei and Dionne, that "Republican wave of historic proportions" came crashing ashore Nov. 2 with enough power to flip six seats in New York into the GOP column. In addition to Buerkle's hard-fought win in the 25th District, Republicans also captured previously Democrat-held seats in the 13th, 19th, 20th, 24th and 29th districts. New York's six GOP pickups was the most of any state. Republicans gained five seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, while adding four seats in both Florida and Illinois. If such widespread victories are not a mandate for House Republicans to oppose the Democrats' liberal agenda, whatever could be?

Buerkle seems determined to live up to her campaign promises. At a press conference yesterday in Syracuse, a reporter asked whether she needed to "moderate some of [her] positions," given her narrow margin of victory.

"I don't think that anyone would ask me to compromise my principles," Buerkle answered. "I think the consensus vote was we need less government, lower taxes, we need to do what's right… to get our economy back on course."

Turning that "consensus" into policy is the Republicans mandate. 

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.