- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

The 2006 midterm elections are over now, and here come the claims of winners and allocations of blame to the losers.

First, let’s get past the obvious. The Democrats won control of Congress, picked up governorships and gained control of more state legislatures. Although the margins in virtually all the contested races were rarely large, and most were quite thin, Democrats won most of those races. In fact, in Senate races, the Democrats won all save one, but that was enough for the smallest margin of control possible.

Democratic wins were not limited to a single region, but took place in all regions of the country. Republican hegemony in the South and West was compromised. Many recent Republican gains in the Midwest, Middle Atlantic and Northeast regions were reduced.

It was, as President Bush put it in his inimitable Texglish, “a thumpin.’ ”

What is not so obvious is why the Democrats did so well. The first and obvious reasons that have already been suggested are dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, and disappointment in the work and character of the Republican Congress itself. Clearly, these factors played a large role.

I would further suggest, however, that the always critical swing group of voters were unhappy about the general movement of drift from the political center in the Beltway. To be fair, both parties have allowed this to happen in their internal debates, but I would argue that only Republicans strongly displayed this in their campaign. Mr. Bush and his political advisers, sensing the ambivalence of its conservative party base, felt that their primary objective was to re-ignite the loyalty of that base and to follow their long-term game plan of winning elections by turning out their base voters in greater numbers than the Democrats did. This worked in 2000, 2002 and 2004, and presumably it could work in 2006. But years of governing had taken a toll for Republicans in the political center where they had recently competed successfully and won elections.

The Democrats had lurched to their base, a rabidly anti-war, anti-Bush, tax-and-spend populist base, but Democratic political managers, sensing a potential electoral disaster in a year that was theirs to win, pulled back after the nominating phase of their campaigns and ran against GOP incumbents without the extreme rhetoric of their base.

They were given a warning of this disaster when, indulging the leftist blogosphere and neo-socialist wing of their party, Connecticut Democratic primary voters defeated long-time centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman in their primary. The new Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, echoing the base rhetoric, instantly fell behind Lieberman after he decided to run as an independent. Three GOP incumbent Connecticut members of Congress, considered very vulnerable, suddenly were given new life by the Lamont fiasco. In fact, at least one and possibly two survived.

The left base demand for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, much ballyhooed in the nominating phase of the Democratic 2006 campaign, was overridden by most Democratic candidates for the House and Senate (excepting those in very liberal districts). Democrats instead primarily argued against the Bush administration’s performance in Iraq, and deftly avoided putting forward any plans of their own.

Even before the nominating phase, Democratic House and Senate leaders took special care to recruit strong and usually moderate candidates for their most winnable challenges to GOP incumbents. Looking down the list of Democratic winners in the Senate, for example, it is hard to find a hard-line-left candidate among them. Instead, the new senators, including Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Jim Webb in Virginia, John Tester in Montana, Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri are all moderate liberals or centrists. (Sherrod Brown in Ohio leans more to the left, but his easy win was predetermined by GOP scandals in that state.)

I think the same is mostly true in the large number of House seats the Democrats won this time. A case in point was the upset of conservative GOP Rep. Gil Gutnecht in Minnesota by moderate Democrat Tim Walz.

Such issues as abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and gun laws, each long considered advantageous to Republicans in elections, failed to turn the tide of the 2006 elections back to the GOP. In some conservative congressional districts, these issues proved decisive, but overall, the social conservative agenda was overridden by other issues for the voters in the center, those voters who usually provide the margin of victory in close races.

This does not mean that the Democrats will now run Congress from the center. The putative new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is a left liberal, and so are many of those who will become chairmen of the powerful House committees. Leaders of both parties rarely govern in the center, even if that is where they win power.

But we shall see. The 2008 elections now loom, and the major presidential candidates of both parties, most of them moderates, will have to try to appease their left and right bases who have so much say in the nominating process.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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