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The Questions That Defined the Election

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

By the summer, it was obvious that this year's political winds were not blowing favorably for Republicans. But it was far from inevitable that Democrats would command a majority simultaneously in the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. In July, the political staff of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com came up with a list of eight questions that would frame the campaign. Some of these involved long-term ideological and geographic trends, and others focused on issues specific to 2006. Over the past four months, individual articles -- which remain online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/bellwether -- looked at races where the bellwether questions were most vividly on display.

On Tuesday, the voters weighed in with their answers to the questions The Post posed in the 2006 Bellwether Project.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

In 2002, President Bush was the weapon many Republican House and Senate candidates successfully used against their Democratic opponents. This time, Bush was featured prominently in close campaigns -- but almost exclusively in the ads of Democratic candidates using the president as a weapon against Republicans.

The president was still a prodigious fundraiser, but few Republican candidates would appear with him. In exit polls, nearly 60 percent of voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with Bush.

In some cases, anti-Bush sentiments took out unlikely victims. Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) did not vote for Bush in 2004 but lost to Sheldon Whitehouse (D). For 24 years, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R) had a reputation as a moderate within the House GOP caucus, but she lost Connecticut's 5th District to challenger Chris Murphy (D). Five-term Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) kept Bush at a distance, but she still lost the state's 3rd District seat to Democrat John Yarmuth.

MONEY MATTERS

Perhaps the most confounding question for the GOP all year was why the economy wasn't lifting Republican candidates' fortunes.

By most measures, the economy was doing well, with low unemployment and a high stock market. Gasoline prices, which had caused Republicans such distress, had dropped considerably by Election Day.

Even so, the economy appeared only to be a top-tier issue in locales where there were signs of economic anxiety. In three Midwestern battlegrounds where it was prominently debated -- Iowa's 1st District, Wisconsin's 8th and Indiana's 2nd -- Republican candidates lost. Exit polls show that Americans are split over whether the economy is in good shape.

Republicans, meanwhile, had scant success in holding Democrats accountable on the issue. Michigan has a 7.1 percent unemployment rate, and Republican challenger Michael Bouchard slammed Sen. Deborah Stabenow (D) over job losses. She won handily, as did Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

TUNE IN, TURN ON


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