By Ken Feltman
If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.
– Abraham Lincoln
The aftershocks of the November election are subsiding. More waves, driven by continuing political quakes, will wash ashore before this storm ends. The first of these waves will be caused by the reaction of the White House and officials of the two major parties as they attempt to rationalize or adjust. These attempts are likely to be heavy-handed, amateurish, insincere.
The White House has been asking close friends to prepare articles and make television appearances claiming that the Republican wave was not all that unusual and that Democrats are likely to reverse most of the damage in 2012. They make it seem as if the 2010 election was just a little misunderstanding by the voters.
Still, when a president has to pressure people to write or say something, that’s a signal that people aren’t writing and saying what the president wants. He’s worried. He is also wrong. Voters did not like what President Obama and the Democrats were doing. They pushed the pause button. Now voters are becoming annoyed that Obama and the Democrats are saying and doing things that indicate that they didn’t get the message – or got the message but want to bluff their way past it.
Also wrong are the Democratic staffers (and some Democratic members of Congress) who are calling the newly elected Republicans “huns.” The new Republicans will display low tolerance for Democrats as well as Republicans who demean them.
Exactly who doesn’t fit in?
Some Old Bull Congressional Republicans are also wrong. These senior Republicans talk as if they expect the newcomers to fit right in as proper backbenchers: Seen but not heard. The new House members, many with Tea Party tendencies, have a different idea.
A few careened through their early meetings like NASCAR racers. One long-time Republican congressman who expects to be elevated to chair a key committee sniffed at the overbearing behavior of the freshmen. He commented, “There are not enough openings on the District of Columbia Committee. We’ll need to enlarge it.” That committee is often a dumping ground for congressmen who do not have, shall we say, the proper attitude.
A senior congressman from the South may never get it. He said that the new Republican class dressed more like Democrats. “Don’t they know that they are being judged here? It’s a little bit like fraternity rush. You have to impress the brothers to get in.” Um, actually, they are in and – surprise! – they are judging you. Your stance on key issues, not your wardrobe, will be most important.
Expect more confrontations and collisions. The Washington establishment thinks it will absorb the newcomers and continue business as usual. The newcomers are just beginning to learn how difficult it will be to change Washington. But two underreported results of the election suggest that the Democrats may continue to slip as the GOP consolidates and prepares for another good result in 2012.
The most significant damage: Key states go Republican
Against this backdrop of culture clash, the election’s most significant damage to Democrats is just being understood – or misunderstood. The GOP swamped the Democrats in the states. The heavy losses Obama and the Democrats suffered in congressional races across the industrial heartland were exceeded by losses in state legislative races.
Republicans picked up 680 state legislative seats, the biggest gain for either party since the 1930s. In addition, 14 state legislators in six states have switched to the GOP since the election. That number is expected to grow as next year’s legislative sessions draw closer. The party switchers hope that, as Republicans, they can regain lost seniority and hold their seats in two years. Before the election, Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures outright. Republicans were in charge in 14. Republicans will now control 26 state legislatures. Democrats will have 17. Republicans have not been so powerful in state capitals since Eisenhower swept to the presidency with long coattails in 1952.
Look at the map: Amazingly, the Democrats look like a regional party – alive and well on the coasts but wiped out in the Heartland and the South. The Alabama legislature is in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction. Republicans took the North Carolina senate for the first time since 1870. The Minnesota senate went Republican for the first time ever.
Republicans control legislatures in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All but one of those states also have Republican governors. In Michigan, the House flipped from 64-42 Democratic to 63-47 Republican. In Minnesota, the House went from 87-47 Democratic to 72-62 Republican.
The Republican wave came at exactly the right time for maximum impact. The states will redistrict based on the 2010 census. Where the Republicans are in control of redistricting, the GOP will gerrymander the lines to favor more conservative candidates.
The new Republican power will affect the 2012 presidential election. Obama will find the 2012 map more difficult. His upset victories in normally GOP states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia will be hard to repeat. Furthermore, Republicans will hold the governorships in traditional battlegrounds states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. It’s a tough map for any Democrat.
The Republican advantage in 2012 can be neutralized or eliminated if the new GOP governors and state legislatures fail. That is Obama’s best hope. Experience suggests it is a realistic hope.
The most significant demographic trend: Finns and Latinos
Election analyst Michael Barone looks at ethnic politics, district by district. This year, he notes that three reliably Democratic House districts will all be in Republican hands when the new congress convenes. The districts stretch along the Lake Superior shore from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula across northern Wisconsin into Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Early in the last century, immigrants from Finland flooded into this logging and mining region and they have remained the dominant ethnic group since. Like other immigrants from the Baltic nations, the Finns are tough, practical and resourceful. They persevere. They have patience. But this year the patience ran out and three incumbent Democratic chairman are gone, two retiring in the face of dismal polls and one losing.
Do we have a new bellwether group? As the Finns go, so goes the country?
The bigger news is about Latino voters and candidates. Thirty-eight percent of Latino voters cast ballots for GOP House candidates, compared with 29 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2006. Republican Latina Susana Martinez was elected governor of New Mexico, getting nearly 25 percent more of the Latino vote than expected. Exit polls showed that her position on illegal immigration helped her among Latinos, who know that they are directly impacted by illegal immigrants who take jobs away from citizens and legal residents. Latinos also voiced concern that the Democrats were not cracking down on crime involving illegals.
In Nevada, Republican Latino Brian Sandoval will be the new governor. Exit polls there show that many Hispanics resent the attention paid to illegal immigrants.
Cuban-American Marco Rubio drove a popular Republican governor out of the Florida GOP primary and went on to win a Senate seat. The perception that Democrats coddle illegals at the expense of law-abiding citizens was a factor. Elsewhere, Latino Republicans won in districts and states with small Latino populations. They won on the issues.
Latino voters were not attracted by the GOP’s “enlightened” policies toward Hispanics. The Republicans have done more to alienate than to attract Latinos. Sometimes, dumb luck strikes even regressive organizations. The victorious Latinos won with values-based campaigns. House candidate Raul Labrador of Idaho defeated a popular Democratic incumbent with a right-of-center voting record. When the returns were in, one of Labrador’s spokespersons summed it up: “Raul stressed family, church, honesty, hard work, the value of a good education and a safe neighborhood for our children.”
In the Texas district with the longest border with Mexico, Republican Quico Canseco edged a popular Democratic incumbent. Canseco emphasized economic growth, jobs and traditional values – values appreciated by most Latinos. Leaving a polling place near the Rio Grande, a Latino voter answered researchers’ questions. Then he pointed across the Rio Grande and said, “Look at their problems. Here, it’s time for the Republicans.”
The values discussed by many Republican Latinos are traditional American values. Those values propelled the Tea Parties. Indeed, they are the values that have concerned citizens, new and old, since the founding of the country.
Will the Democrats adjust? Or will they call a tail a leg? Will the Republicans understand that they did little as a party to deserve increased Latino support? Or will they try to call a tail a leg? This election shows that most voters know a tail from a leg, even if the politicians don’t.