The Upside-Down Landslide

The 2010 election is finally in the books, and a fascinating one it was.  Things happened last Tuesday night that have never before occurred in American history.


The predictions of a Republican sweep came true, as the party gained at least 61 seats in the House--nine too-close-to-call elections are still outstanding--and recaptured the House majority after four years of Democratic control.  The Republicans also will have their largest majority in the modern political era (post 1920).  Even during the dozen years of Republican House majorities (1995 - 2007), the party never exceeded electing 232 members.  The new House will feature at least 240 Republicans and will probably settle around the 243 mark when all the elections are finally counted and certified.


This is also the first time in history that the House changed party control without the Senate following suit.  In past elections the Senate has changed without the House, but until last Tuesday, the House never switched parties without the Senate doing likewise.


As we have cited in previous articles, it was always going to be difficult, if not virtually impossible, for the Republicans to gain control of the Senate simply because they had to protect too many seats.  As you know, Senators receive six-year terms upon election and one-third of the body must face the voters every two years.  In the 2010 cycle, three special elections, due to appointments and the death of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), were added to the political landscape.  Hence, this in-cycle rotation of one-third of the Senate seats made the Republicans defend virtually 50 percent of the states standing for election even though they only controlled 41 percent of the body.


The fact that the GOP had to protect six competitive open seats was also a factor in creating high hurdles to obtain majority status.  It was necessary to win these six tough campaigns just to keep their number at 41.  In other words, Republicans were forced to clinch 28 of the 37 Senate races just to obtain a one-seat majority.  This is a tall order in any election and, in fact, they did come up short.  Last Tuesday, the Republicans won 24 of the 37 campaigns, better than a 2:1 victory ratio, but it still wasn’t good enough.  The new Senate will feature 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans, a net gain of six seats for the GOP.


But the overall nature of this election is what’s proving so interesting.  Something like this has never happened in the course of modern American politics, for what occurred is an “upside down landslide.”  Normally, landslides occur from the top of the ticket down to the races at the bottom of the ballot.  The major campaigns normally set the trend and the rest of the ticket follows suit.  In the case of Election 2010, the opposite occurred, as the landslide seemed to be driven from the bottom up. As voters proceeded down the ballot last Tuesday, the Republicans substantially gained in strength.


At the U.S. Senate level, though Republicans gained six seats, only two incumbents--Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin--were defeated.  At the gubernatorial level, only two incumbents were likewise unseated, despite the Republicans gaining five states nationwide.  The two were Governors Strickland of Ohio and Culver of Iowa.  But at the U.S. House level, where incumbent retention is usually the highest of any elected office, at least 51 incumbents have already been defeated (remember the nine outstanding races at this writing), an extraordinary number.  In the last landslide years, 1994, 2006, and 2008, the numbers of incumbent defeats were far, far less.  But of even greater curiosity, the landslide grew even bigger when going to the state legislative contests.  Hundreds of state representatives and senators were defeated last Tuesday, and Republicans gained at least 680 seats nationally while flipping a minimum of 19 chambers from Democratic control to that of their own party.  Thus, our contention that 2010 yielded an “upside-down” landslide.


Why did this happen?  We believe there are several reasons.  First, there were a greater number of competitive races at the U.S. House and state legislative levels than can be recalled in recent memory.  Thus, greater competition leads to a larger number of challenger victories.  Second, the outside independent expenditures were focused heavily on the U.S. House races, therefore drawing more attention to the campaigns at this level.  Third, the universal unpopularity of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proved to be a turnout driver for the GOP.  Voters were clearly coming to the polls in order to change the policy direction away from the initiatives that she was so ardently championing.


Much more will be discovered and reported about the 2010 election once all of the results are finally determined and officially certified.  But, it appears certain that the 2010 vote has changed political history in a very unique way.




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