November 9, 2004In a really competitive race, there is rarely just one reason for a victory. But an important factor in President Bush's triumph surely is that the Bush-Cheney reelection effort was perhaps the best planned, best executed, most disciplined, and most strategic presidential campaign in history. The Bush campaign team was exceptionally good. And it made very few mistakes.
That's true even though the campaign had to deal with an economy that was not generating as many jobs as the White House had anticipated and was being shaken by $2-a-gallon gasoline prices. The Bush campaign also had to deal with a war that wasn't going well, with the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and with the lack of an Iraqi connection to 9/11. Finally, the Bush team had every reason to anticipate having a significant financial advantage over the Democratic challenger -- an advantage that never materialized, even though the Bush campaign raised a record-shattering amount of money.
John Kerry's failure to connect on a personal level with much of the electorate also undoubtedly helped Bush. Over the past 30 years, winning challengers have found a way to strike a chord with voters that was sufficient to take advantage of significant economic problems.
In 1976, for example, the "I'll never lie to you" outsider appeal of Jimmy Carter -- a former nuclear submarine officer, former governor of Georgia, and peanut farmer with a family straight out of a Southern Gothic novel -- was a hit with an electorate reeling from the forced resignation of President Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Four years later, many Americans found Ronald Reagan's optimism, and his message of strength and leadership, to be the perfect antidote for low national self-esteem caused by a lousy economy, the taking of American hostages in Iran, and the Carter administration's botched attempt to rescue the hostages. Similarly, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton leveraged his lack of foreign-policy experience into an asset against President George H.W. Bush. By insisting that he was going to "focus on the economy like a laser beam," Clinton took advantage of a perception that the incumbent had neglected domestic affairs.
Kerry, by contrast, turned neither the sputtering economy nor a troublesome war into a sufficient advantage. He failed to carry Ohio, even though the state had lost more than 150,000 manufacturing jobs in the past four years. And Democrats should be very concerned that Kerry had difficulty in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, just as Al Gore did in 2000.
Democratic presidential nominees are no longer even remotely competitive in the South, in large part because of guns and racial politics. But they also are having serious problems in small-town and rural America in other regions. Democrats now form a secular party uncomfortable with the values and habits of heartland America: Outside major metropolitan areas, a prayer before a meal or the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance before a meeting is commonplace. Most Democrats seem totally out of sync with that America.
Heading into this year's election, the outlook for Senate Democrats seemed pretty bleak. They had to defend 19 seats, compared with the Republicans' 15. And 10 of the 19 were in states Bush had carried in 2000. The Democrats' task got tougher when they wound up with five open seats, all in the South. Early predictions were that the Republicans would pick up three to five seats overall.
Democrats, though, looked at the steep hill they faced and decided to climb it. They recruited fairly moderate candidates to run in Republican-leaning states and raised considerable money for them. The Democrats took a situation that seemed hopeless and convinced analysts, the media, and donors that the majority was within their reach. At the very least, they had the ability to prevent Republicans from building on their slim majority.
Going into Election Day, Republicans held 51 seats. And nine of the year's races, including four for Republican-held seats, were rated as toss-ups. Contests in the Republican strongholds of North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina were considered too close to call. And Democrats managed to put Kentucky, where GOP Sen. Jim Bunning was running for re-election, into play in the final three weeks of the campaign.
As the Senate results rolled in, observers relearned several lessons. First, toss-up races almost never split down the middle; one party wins the lion's share. Second, presidential elections boost turnouts -- a plus for Republicans this year because of the location of the closest races. Finally, Republican candidates in heavily Republican states -- just like Democrats in very Democratic states -- often can win despite themselves. This year, GOP nominees Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina made some big mistakes, yet they didn't pay for them at the polls.
Former Rep. John Thune of South Dakota is a hero to fellow Republicans for toppling Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Thune ran an aggressive and disciplined campaign, becoming the first Senate candidate in 52 years to unseat a majority or minority leader.
But the unsung star of Election Night was GOP Rep. David Vitter of Louisiana. Not only did Vitter become the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a Senate seat in the Bayou State, but he also shocked observers by avoiding a December runoff. He thus broke the GOP's habit of failing to hit the 50-percent mark in statewide elections.
Republicans will have 55 seats in the next Senate. Democrats lost all five of their seats in the toss-up column, and six seats overall. Republicans lost their open seats in Colorado and Illinois. At the end of the day, "red" states elected "red" senators.
In the battle for the House, it's deja vu all over again. With a handful of races yet to be called, Republicans seem to have picked up four seats. This was the second election in a row in which Republicans gained House seats. (Two Louisiana contests, in the 3rd and 7th districts, are headed for runoffs.)
As we have seen since 1998, House incumbents are nearly invincible. At this point, it looks as if only seven incumbents lost. That total includes four Democrats who ran in Texas districts drastically redrawn in hopes of defeating them.
Despite talk on both sides of the aisle of a "wave" strong enough to sweep out incumbents sitting in the "wrong" districts, Republican Reps. Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons of Connecticut survived in Democratic territory, as did Democratic Reps. Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Jim Matheson of Utah in GOP-leaning areas. Attempts by their opponents to tie them to the top of the ticket did little to undermine their support; voters in their districts continued to split their tickets. In Connecticut's 2nd District, for example, Kerry took 62 percent of the vote in Norwich, while Democratic former Norwich City Councilor Jim Sullivan took just 46 percent against Simmons. In Utah, Matheson got a whopping 65 percent of the vote in Salt Lake County, while Kerry received just 37 percent.
Election Night produced no real House surprises. In Indiana, Democratic Rep. Baron Hill was expected to have a tough race. He narrowly lost to Republican Mike Sodrel. As predicted, Republicans did a good job of minimizing their defeats in open seats. They lost just one or two of their six competitive open districts (CO-03 and perhaps NY-27).
House election-watchers are already turning their focus to 2006: The White House's party generally loses ground in a midterm House election. The last time one party controlled all three branches of government heading into a midterm election, Democrats lost both the House and the Senate. That was a decade ago. Will House Democrats be able to replicate the Republicans' success of 1994? Unless a lot of Republicans choose to retire, the odds will still be against House Democrats.
Then again, the nation's political terrain might look quite different two years from now.
Associate Editors Jennifer E. Duffy and Amy Walter contributed to this report.
November 9, 2004