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The Lessons of the 2010 Midterm Elections

Laura Gangi Pond/Shutterstock.com

In real estate, the three most important things are said to be "location, location, and location." In politics, it might well be "timing, timing, and timing." As we approach the 2014 midterm elections, the Senate's Democratic majority is teetering on the edge, but the House is just an afterthought, with little chance that it will change control or direction. Had it not been for the Democratic debacle in 2010, we might well be talking about an endangered Democratic majority in the House this year rather than a GOP lock.

Recall that Republicans themselves had been through punishing elections in 2006 and 2008; the GOP was in pretty awful shape heading into 2009. Conversely, the forecast for Democrats at that point looked awfully good. Then the bottom fell out for Democrats in 2009 and 2010, largely due to the drop in President Obama's job-approval numbers and the radioactivity of health care reform, and, to a lesser extent, House passage of cap-and-trade climate legislation. Unfortunately for Democrats, the reversal of fortune happened in a midterm election, when far more governorships and state legislative seats are up than in the presidential cycle. Even more important, it was the last election before state legislators redrew maps for congressional and state seats for the coming decade.

Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who has spent more than two decades studying state-level elections, points out that there were historical danger signs: Democrats had gained state legislative seats in three straight elections leading into 2010, and neither party since the 1920s had gained seats in four straight elections. Democrats were set up for a loss, and, boy, did they have one. The party not only saw a net loss of six governorships (actually losing 11 but gaining five), it also suffered a net loss of 725 state legislative seats, which was, according to Storey, more than either party has gained or lost since 1966. Republicans picked up 23 state legislative chambers (plus, Oregon moved from a Democratic majority to a tie) in 2009 and 2010. Democratic state Senate chambers went Republican in Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. State Houses flipped from blue to red in Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

With their president's popularity tanking, this was the worst time for Democrats to face an election. The day after, Storey wrote prophetically that "2010 will go down as a defining election that will shape the national political landscape for at least the next 10 years. The GOP, in dramatic fashion, finds itself now in the best position for both congressional and state legislative line-drawing that it has enjoyed in the modern era of redistricting."

Of course there is more to the partisan distribution of congressional and state legislative seats than just gerrymandering. The Voting Rights Act, for example, has the effect of concentrating large numbers of minority voters in districts that make adjacent districts less hospitable for Democrats, even when Republicans are not in a position to help the process along. Population-sorting also plays a role: According to our number crunching at The Cook Political Report, in the 2012 presidential election, 60 percent of Republican-leaning seats got even more Republican and 76 percent of Democratic seats got even more Democratic—independent of redistricting. Furthermore, Democrats' residential "clustering" in urban areas shows no signs of abating; thanks to the burgeoning in-migration of young (and quite socially liberal) voters to urban settings, many cities have actually begun to grow faster than their suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. This is continuing to make Democrats' electorate even less geographically efficient for purposes of winning the House.

All that aside, the fact that Republicans had the redistricting pens in their hands still made an enormous difference. That Democrats won the national popular vote for the House of Representatives in 2012 while just barely chipping away at the newly minted GOP majority underscores that.

While this year's midterms won't change the course set in 2010, what happens in the 2018 and 2020 gubernatorial and state legislative elections will be huge in establishing who controls redistricting in 2021, and which governors can veto or influence where the lines are drawn. For Democrats, those elections will determine whether they are going to be shut out of controlling the House for a second straight decade, or whether there will be a fairer fight for dominance of the lower chamber. Obviously, the political environment will also be shaped by whoever wins the presidency in 2016; how the next president performs in the 2018 midterm election, and her or his prospects for reelection in 2020, will likely determine whether the terrain will be tilted toward one party or be relatively level. But after they saw how much of a difference 2010 made, it's pretty safe to assume that neither side will be caught asleep in these cycles.

This article appears in the August 2, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Lessons of 2010 .

(Image via Laura Gangi Pon/Shutterstock.com)

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