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A Wave Election
By any measure the 2010 mid-term elections were a resounding setback for Democrats. Republicans were able to feed off of the energy generated by Tea Party activists, while Democrats, after successful cycles in 2006 and 2008, suffered from an "enthusiasm gap." The result was reverses at every level for the Democrats. The wave started in November 2009 as Republicans won governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, it continued on Jan. 19, 2010, when Republican Scott Brown was elected to the U.S. Senate in the Massachussetts special election, and on November 2 it hit with full force. Democrats lost 63 net seats in the U.S. House, the most since 1938. In the U.S. Senate, Democrats lost six seats, although they did manage to maintain control of the chamber. (By comparison, over the previous 17 mid-term elections the party holding the White House had lost an average of 28 House seats and 4 Senate seats). Of 37 governships at stake, an astounding 23 were open. Republicans won 23 to 13 for the Democrats and one Independent, shifting the balance from 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans to 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats and 1 Independent. With reapportionment and redistricting coming up following the 2010 Census, state legislative races were intensely contested (>). Republicans gained over 675 legislative seats giving them the most seats since 1928, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A number of observers believe that Democrats could pay a price for for their poor showing for a decade to come.

Sour Economy
Looming over the 2010 mid-term elections was the question of jobs and the economy. The near collapse of the economy in 2008 created a difficult hole to dig out of, and the slow recovery weighed heavily against Democrats. Candidate Obama had built people's expectations up to an extraordinary level. On Feb. 17, 2009 President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law. The Recovery Act likely worked to a degree, but conservatives attacked it as wasteful spending and progressives argued that it had not been nearly enough (1, 2). Problems such as the loss of manufacturing jobs, the housing crisis (two million foreclosure homes in Fall 2010 according to Realty Trac), rising poverty and income inequality (poverty rate at 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest since 1994) were not amenable to quick fixes.  The most obvious indicator of trouble for the Democrats was the continuing high unemployment rate--officially 9.6% in the last report before Election Day (1, 2). Deficit spending and the national debt approaching $13 trillion (1, 2) caused great unease. President Obama established a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (or "debt commission"), charged with issuing its report about a month after the election, on Dec. 1, 2010 (>). Meanwhile, state governments were affected by the slow economy; revenue shortfalls and structural deficits  necessitated difficult cuts (>). Also on the economic front, Congress had to address the matter of whether to extend all or some of the Bush tax cuts, set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010; this debate was put off until the lame duck session (1, 2).

Health Care
Health care reform was clearly a major issue (1, 2). After a year of contentious debate, President Obama signed historic health insurance reforms into law on March 23, 2010. While one might have expected Democratic candidates would hail such a landmark piece of legislation on the campaign trail, it proved to be a big liability. Conservatives labeled it a big government takeover of health care, and even supporters were put off by the overlong and messy process in which it was adopted. Further, major provisions were not to take effect for several years. A number of states quickly challenged the constitutionality of the law. Conservatives made repeal of "Obamacare" a prime target in the campaign. One of the key elements of House Republicans' "Pledge to America" was "a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of health care."

Other Issues
Illegal immigration (>) was brought sharply into focus by the tough measure signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on April 23, 2010. The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit challenging the constitutionality of Arizona's law, S.B. 1070, on July 6, and half a dozen other lawsuits were filed as well. In Phoenix on July 28, one day before the law was to take effect, U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton issued a preliminary injunction blocking major provisions of S.B. 1070 from being implemented. Progressives pushed for "comprehensive immigration reform" and argued or threatened that President Obama would lose votes if he failed to keep his promises. On the conservative side, in many Republican primaries candidates sought to out-tough their opponents on the immigration issue.

By Election Day, the April 20 explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and subsequent devasting oil spill (>) had receded from the headlines, but for almost three months the grainy images of oil spewing into the Gulf were a constant element of the news, and a serious distraction for the administration. BP did not manage to stop the flow until the July 15 "integrity test." By then an estimated 4.9 million barrels had spilled into the Gulf, making it the largest unintentional oil spill in history (some 800,000 barrels were captured). The disaster reminded Americans for a short while of the need to address our energy needs. Progressives' hopes that the disaster might lead to a major energy bill addressing climate change faded in the summer heat; conservatives were united against "cap and trade." 

America remained a nation at war. Overseas, tens of thousands of U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and Iraq (1, 2). In May the number in Afghanistan surpassed those in Iraq, and on August 19, the last combat brigade exited Iraq, ahead of the August 31 deadline set by President Obama; however, 50,000 troops remained. Meanwhile, Afghanistan proved to be tough going. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was ousted in June 2010 over disparaging remarks and Gen. David Petraeus took over leadership of the campaign. There were around 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, voters in 37 states had their say on 160 initiatives and referenda affecting a broad range of issues (1, 2).

The Tea Party Movement
The broad perception that "Washington is broken" was reflected in numerous polls. An April 2010 Pew Research Center survey found "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government (>)."  In July 2010 Gallup found only 11 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress, a record low, and the lowest of the 16 institutions Gallup polled on, while half of Americans have "very little" or "no" confidence in Congress (>).

A major contributor to the lack of confidence in Congress was the dysfunctional legislative process and partisan, ideological tone. The U.S. Senate drew particular attention. Columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. opined in a July 29 column that the Senate "has become an embarrassment to our democratic claims" and George Packer painted a bleak picture in his article "The Empty Chamber" in the August 9 issue of The New Yorker (1, 2, 3). Scandals involving several House members occurred during the 111th Congress, but these did not have much effect nationally as had been the case in 2006. (Reps. Eric Massa (D-NY) and Mark Souder (R-IN) resigned, there were charges against Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA), and a continuing investigation into Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) (1, 2).

2010 saw the largest number of candidates running for Congress in decades; more candidates filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for House since the FEC began keeping track in 1975. Most importantly, the dissatisfaction led the growth of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement recalled the Ross Perot-inspired Reform Party, but it was not a party.  Rather, it was a highly decentralized "open source political organization." Tea Party Patriots united around the values of "fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets." Although the Tea Party claimed to draw from "all slices of the political spectrum," its principles clearly aligned more closely with the Republican Party; at the same time Tea Party activists had a strong independent streak.

The Republican Message
The Republican message, by and large, was a case against the excesses of big government. The fact that this paralleled the Tea Party principles gave Republicans a huge boost. To a degree the GOP sought to nationalize their campaigns. On September 23 House Republican leaders formally unveiled "A Pledge to America," described as "a new governing agenda built by listening to you and focusing on your top priorities." [PDF] (>) Republican House Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (CA), who led the drafting of the 2008 Republican platform, helped craft the document. Thousands of ideas were submitted through the America Speaking Out website (>). The announcement event, at Tart Lumber Company in Sterling, VA, recalled the time 16 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1994, when over 300 Republican House candidates rallied around the Contract with America on the steps of the Capitol. The "Pledge to America" was a very different document than the Contract, however. The Contract had specific legislative proposals, while the Pledge set broad goals. The Pledge did not figure significantly in day to day campaigning for House seats. Meanwhile, out of the Republican National Committee, Republicans targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a "Fire Pelosi" message (>).

The Democratic Message
Democrats vowed to focus on about 15 million "surge voters" who helped propel President Obama to victory in 2008. They sought to portray the mid-terms as a choice between results and obstruction (>). Democrats argued that Republicans had little to offer beyond going back to the ideas of President George W. Bush and that Republicans and extreme Tea Party elements were inextricably linked. Ultimately, the results will be seen as a referendum on the first two years of the Obama Administration. Although Obama's popularity had declined significantly since the glory days of the campaign, he and Joe Biden actively raised money and campaigned for Democratic candidates (1, 2); Michelle Obama also ventured out onto the campaign trail starting on October 13. Former President Bill Clinton did more than 90 events. The DNC reported record spending for a midterm cycle, claiming "the largest ground game in the history of midterm elections" and "unprecedented outreach to key Democratic constituencies" (>). The enthusiasm gap undercut all these efforts.

Other Parties
Although the discontent could have led to significant wins for third parties, they did not have much impact. The major parties' huge financial and institutional advantages remained. A few high profile independents did well.

Close to Four Billion Dollars
Money is always a factor in campaigns.  2010 shattered the record for spending in a midterm cycle. The Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that spending on U.S. Senate and U.S. House races in the 2010 cycle, including spending by party committees and interest groups, totaled between $3.7 and $4 billion (>); this compares to $2.85 billion in 2006. This is just for federal elections and does not include state races and ballot campaigns. Candidates for U.S. House and Senate spent almost $1.7 billion ($1.06 billion by House candidates and $630.8 million by Senate candidates) (>).

The Wesleyan Media Project reported that over $1 billion was spent on advertising in U.S. Senate, House and gubernatorial races (>). (The Project further reported that 2010 was "the most negative campaign in recent history." "More than half of all ads are pure attack ads, and if we include contrast spots, roughly 2 out of every 3 ads on the air are negative,” stated Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and co-director of the Project.)

The Campaign Legal Center identifies (>) three major changes that occurred in campaign finance in the 2010 cycle: A major question this cycle: the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision (>), the failure of disclosure laws, and the emergence of super PACs. Citizens United, issued on January 21, 2010, made it possible for corporations and unions to use general funds to affect elections; before such activity was done through political action committees which had to follow disclosure rules. Within a few weeks of the decision, Democrats introduced the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) (>). The bill passed the House in June but failed to advance in the Senate. In the closing month of the campaign, Democrats sought to make an issue of spending by outside groups and the lack of transparency and gained some traction (1, 2, 3). The Campaign Legal Center describes "an unprecedented lack of political transparency." Also new for this cycle, 72 super PACs, "independent expenditure-only committees" which can accept unlimited contributions, spent $83.7 million, led by the conservative American Crossroads at $21.6 million (>).

Republicans made historic strides in adding to the diversity of their elected officials. They elected Susana Martinez governor of New Mexico, Marco Rubio U.S. Senator from Florida and four new congressmen: Francisco Canseco (TX), Jaime Herrera (WA), Raúl Labrador (ID), and David Rivera (FL). They sent two African-Americans to Congress: Tim Scott (SC) and Alan West (FL). Their women candidates also fared better than the Democrats.  Republicans elected three new woman Governors, Susana Martinez (NM), Mary Fallin (OK) and Nikki Haley (SC); a new woman Senator, Kelly Ayotte (NH); and nine of the 13 new women in the House.

Women Officeholders Before and After the 2010 Midterm Elections

U.S. Senate
17 / 100  or  17.0%
17/100 or 17.0%
U.S. House* 56
73 / 435  or  16.8%
72/435 or 16.6%
Statewide Offices**
71 / 315  or  22.5%

State Legislatures

1,814 / 7382  or 24.6%

*Does not include three Delegates from DC, Guam and USVI.

**Women Governors went from 3D and 3R to 4R and 2D.
Source: Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers

All in all, however, there is still a long way to go for women to reach parity in elected offices. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers reported that a record number of women candidates filed for U.S. Senate (36: 19D, 17R) and U.S. House (262: 134D, 128R) in 2010.  After the primaries, according to CAWP, there were 15 women U.S. Senate candidates (9D, 6R, including Murkowski), 138 U.S. House candidates (91D, 47R, not including non-voting delegate candidates) and 10 gubernatorial candidates (5D, 5R). After November 2 the number of woman elected officials at the top level remains essentially unchanged; indeed CAWP noted that due to defeats of Democratic congresswomen, 2010 is "the first time the number of women in Congress has dropped since 1979." Perhaps the statewide offices and state legislatures will show improvements.

Looking Ahead
The White House faces the challenge of working with a Republican House, while Republicans share the burden of governing in these difficult economic times. Many observers are forecasting two years of gridlock. Republican successes in 2010 were not a bad showing for a party that was seen as an "endangered species" following the 2008 campaign (see Time magazine's May 18, 2009 cover story). Republican leaders recognize that they are on probation, and that they must produce results. Another wave could easily hit in 2012. Recall that President Bill Clinton was convincingly elected to a second term following Democrats' setbacks in the 1994 midterms. 

--text by Eric M. Appleman, revised January 2, 2011
See also: Reacting to the Midterm Elections