Its still 69 days until election day, but with primary season by and large over for most of the races, it may be a good time to take a T minus 10 weeks snapshot of where things stand.
In the primaries, there have been winners and losers on both sides:
1. Tea party activists. The success of the fledgling tea party at the November polls remains to be seen, but they have had a lot of success in the primaries. Toppling incumbent Senators Bill Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska were a shared victory between online conservative activists and the tea party movement who helped propel lesser known candidates to the fore, knocking off Republican senators deemed too liberal for their states. Establishment candidates such as Charlie Crist in Florida was similarly overcome by a similar political coalition in Florida by rising star Marc Rubio, Sue Lowden was defeated in Nevada by Sharon Angle, and Ken Buck managed to surpass Jane Norton in Colorado. In each of these high profile primaries, the GOP went to war with itself, with the same faction coming out on top time after time. Similarly, the first pebbles in this avalanche may date back to this spring when Pat Toomey’s outpolling of then GOP Senator Arlen Specter precipitated Specter’s defection to the Democratic Party.
2. Online activists – The conservative and liberal blogosphere continue to expand as a power player in politics. Increasingly they push their respective parties to the left or right, serve as the primary news source for the base, and flex their fundraising and volunteer muscles. The liberal blogosphere is still a world ahead of the conservative blogosphere, but the gap is narrowing, and their handpicked and/or endorsed candidates seem to do far better, even in stunning surprises at times, than the establishment candidates.
3. GOP – Obviously, this looks to be a good year for the GOP. It remains to be seen how good a year. While electoral prospects in 2010 look bright, however, party identification and party brand are still down from 5-10 years ago.
4. Independents – Paralleling the rise in partisanship has been an increase in independent candidates and those voters who self-describe as independent. It is an interesting time in that respect, but thus far, independent candidates have only prevailed by having long established their name brand as a party candidate or by running to the extreme left or right. It is a dynamic which appears unlikely to change soon, but more moderate candidates of both stripes may abandon party affiliation in the days ahead to save their political skins just as Joe Lieberman did and Charlie Crist is trying to do.
1. Barack Obama – The current GOP wave is probably most broadly interpreted as a rejection of Democratic policies under the leadership of President Obama. Besides Obama’s unsuccessful campaign efforts on behalf of gubernatorial candidates last fall in NJ and VA, his unsuccessful late intervention in a Massachussetts senate race, and the fact that many candidates in conservative states and districts are shunning him, there will be an impact on his agenda for the remainder of his term. The only real questions is how many seats will the GOP pick up. At best, he will need to learn to do a much better job of achieving bipartisan legislation, and at worst, he could be rendered a lame duck president. Further, given the upcoming redistricting in 2010, the fact the GOP is poised to capture a majority, perhaps even a supermajority of governorships will help whoever is the GOP 2012 nominee against Obama when he runs for another term. It will also hurt the Democrats’ chances at retaining the White House in 2016 and 2020 if the GOP captures a vast majority of the Governorships.
2. Unions – Organized labor is taking a huge hit this fall. They put a lot of chips down on Bill Halter to topple incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln in the primary in Arkansas, but narrowly lost. Now Lincoln looks as though she will be slaughtered in the general election as well. Further, an emerging tenet of the tea party movement seems to be an opposition against government spending and public unions.
3. Moderates – It is perhaps a sad, but perhaps also inevitable, development that the parties are becoming increasingly polarized and unable to reach compromises in a bipartisan fashion. GOP moderates have lost in recent cycles with their New England contingent more or less completely obliterated. The few survivors are bona fide conservatives. Moderate GOP Senators and Senatorial candidates such as Sen. Bob Bennett, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Gov. Charlie Crist, and others have lost their base. Similarly, blue dog Democrats are getting wiped out in large numbers this fall, and I expect that trend to continue over the next few cycles. Moderates like Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln have met their demise as the liberal wing of the Democratic party refused to rally around them, preferring to back primary opponents instead. Online liberal activists are committed to eliminating or pulling to the left their moderate caucus members. Then again, primary season is never a great time to be a moderate. It remains to be seen if those moderates who did win out (Carly Fiorina over Chuck DeVore in CA Sen GOP primary, Linda McMahon in CT) and those moderates running as party annointed candidates (Dem Gov Manchin in WV, GOP candidate Dino Rossi in WA).
Some questions remaining down the stretch:
1. How big will the GOP wave be? Will it stay at 5 points, expand to a higher margin, or will the Dems make up some ground to mitigate their losses?
2. If the GOP manages huge gains, even if they don’t take over the House, will the Dems suffer defections from Blue Dogs and conservative Dems such as Ben Nelson from Nebraska or Joe Lieberman, independent from CT?
3. Will Obama, like Clinton did after the 1994 elections, be able to shift gears and reinvent himself as having a bipartisan approach? People liked that image of him during the 2008 election, but it seems few who pay attention believe that about him anymore.
4. Will the GOP develop a Contract for America type approach to nationalize races and effectively expand their margin? If so, from what quarter will such leadership materialize given the diminished stature of de facto leaders (Michael Steele as RNC chair has had abysmal fundraising, Sarah Palin is a constant media target loathed by the left, Newt Gingrich is not well-liked and mostly removed from the public eye). Will an Eric Cantor, a Jim DeMint, a John Boehner, a Mike Pence, or a Paul Ryan emerge or team up to take the helm?
5. What impact will the tea party have after the election? Will they continue to evolve into a more organized political force? Will they take steps to avoid splitting tickets unnecessarily in order to gain a seat at the table? Will the GOP reach out to include them more in their candidate recruitment efforts and grassroots support? How much clout will the GOP have to help advance their agenda?