Democrats Blunted GOP Edge in Key Blocs

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y), left, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the Capitol yesterday, helped craft the strategy that could give the Democrats control of the Senate.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y), left, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the Capitol yesterday, helped craft the strategy that could give the Democrats control of the Senate. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Democrats won big in Tuesday's election by undoing GOP gains among groups President Bush once envisioned as essential ingredients of a durable, conservative governing majority in Washington: Catholics, married mothers and Latinos.

These voters, who were instrumental in electing Republicans in recent elections, took flight from the GOP in large numbers and helped push Democratic pickups to the highest level since the post-Watergate election in 1974. Democrats picked up at least 27 House seats and five in the Senate.

While it will take years to determine whether the exodus of voters is a passing phenomenon or something more fundamental, the final exit-polling data showed Democrats not only winning a strong majority overall but also eroding the Republican edge among some of the most important voting blocs in politics today.

The numbers suggest a return to the political landscape that preceded Bush and his effort to use policies and political appointments to build what some of his aides called an effort to restructure American politics. Democrats, for instance, won women by 55 percent to 43 percent, their highest margin since 1988. They won independents, the key swing vote, by 18 percentage points, the biggest margin in House races in the past 25 years.

Republicans also suffered losses among the groups White House political adviser Karl Rove specifically targeted for support over the past six years. Democrats benefited from a 14-point increase among Latinos since the last election, and also won their highest percentage of white voters (47 percent) since 1992. Democratic support among white Protestants -- the base of the modern GOP -- returned to the levels the party enjoyed before Bush's 2000 election. Democrats saw a 10-point gain among Catholics.

Sara Taylor, the White House political director, said the Democrats' gains do not signal a big shift in American politics. "It is premature to assume that because they made some gains . . . that this is some sort of trend toward the Democratic Party," Taylor said. Pointing to the 1938 election when Democrats lost 72 House seats in the sixth year of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, Taylor argued that this year's elections in a hostile political climate -- buffeted by the Iraq war and scandals -- are an interruption, not an end, to the effort to assemble a lasting GOP majority.

The exit polling underscored how sour the political environment was for the GOP. Voters expressed big concerns about corruption, the Iraq war and the direction of the country. This year's survey, however, did not measure specifically the issues that motivated voters most.

Voters most frequently labeled "corruption and scandals in government" as "extremely important" to their vote for the House, but calling this an ethics election would be an over-interpretation, analysts said.

Strategists in both parties agree it was the Iraq war -- and Bush's failure to win this fall's debate over the military operation -- that animated this year's elections most. "Iraq sat at the middle of this election and shaped political attitudes," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

The strategists said the Mark Foley sex scandal, which dominated races just as voters were tuning in, crystallized voter concerns with GOP governance. In the end, undecided voters broke heavily against the GOP in the final days.

"The war and scandals in Congress were the doors that gave us an opportunity," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

Still, the damage could have been worse for Republicans. Their losses were not out of line with the historical average for the sixth year of a presidency. "What you saw was not some big, huge wave election," Taylor said. "I would argue we did a very good job of staving one off." The White House cited its own analysis concluding that Republicans won 13 of 19 races decided by 5,000 votes or less, crediting their turnout program for preventing much deeper losses.

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