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The War’s Wave

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The contours of this landscape-altering election started taking shape more than a year ago. And by the first week of August, my Cook Political Report team and I began forecasting that if the election were held then, the Republicans would lose the House, and that their chances of holding the Senate were deteriorating toward 50-50.

Our final predictions were that Democrats would gain 20 to 35 House seats (the final number appears to be about 29), four to six Senate seats (the party won six -- and control), and six to eight governorships (the actual pickup was six).

The war in Iraq was the biggest factor in this Democratic wave, probably accounting for 70 percent of the total. The public's disapproval of Republicans' handling of a jumble of other issues -- ranging from scandals, immigration, and federal spending and deficits, to stem-cell research, the Terri Schiavo case, and Hurricane Katrina -- produced the wave's other 30 percent.

Because exit-poll data are tweaked before being released, it is impossible to sort out precisely how much of the GOP losses was due to depressed Republican turnout and how much was due to a surge in participation by independents. Self-identified independents favored Democrats by 18 points, 57 percent to 39 percent, and they participated in greater numbers than normal for midterm election years. The GOP share of the independent vote was 9 percentage points lower than in the 2002 midterm election.

Although this election produced plenty of GOP losses, there were few true upsets. That is, there were few surprises. All but two of the House seats that the GOP lost had clearly been endangered. The exceptions were those of Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa's 2nd District) and Rep. Jeb Bradley (New Hampshire's 1st), both of which we had listed as "Likely Republican."

Republicans headed into the election with the contests for 38 of its seats ranked as toss-ups. It lost at least 20 of those races. (The outcome of five others is still uncertain.) The "Toss-Up" column had exploded in the campaign's final days: In this category, we added five Republican-held open seats previously rated as "Lean Democratic" and one previously rated as "Lean Republican," that of six-term Rep. Sue Kelly (New York's 19th). Also, the seat of Democratic Rep. John Barrow (Georgia's 12th) was shifted from Lean Democratic to Toss-Up.

This wave election could have been much worse for the GOP. At least 13 Republican seats in the toss-up column stayed Republican. And five more might end up doing so. As we went to press, the GOP led in the contests for four of the five. But if the Republicans had lost all of their toss-ups -- and nothing else -- they would have suffered a 38-seat setback.

The National Republican Congressional Committee had the most effective campaign staff of any party committee that I've ever seen. And the $60 million that it devoted to this election undoubtedly made a huge difference in holding down GOP losses in a wave election that rivaled the 1994 tsunami. That $60 million doesn't count the $55 million transferred from the Republican National Committee.

If Republican senators had been as aggressive in their fundraising and as generous in sharing their own war chests as their House counterparts, their party might well have kept the Senate and picked off Democratic seats in Michigan and New Jersey, where Republican Party spending was too little, too late.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York turned in perhaps the finest performances of any House and Senate campaign committee chairs in history. Their committee staffs have much to be proud of as well.

Finally, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state game plan was the target of a lot of derisive criticism and second-guessing from other Democrats. But as this election's wave grew higher and pulled more and more races into play, Dean's strategy looked better and better.

 
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