Midterm Election Leaves Political Landscape Blurry

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Rarely has an election result been delivered with such force and clarity, and still left so many unanswered questions in its wake, as that of the 2006 midterm campaign. What happened is unmistakable. What it may portend is far less obvious, making the 2008 election, which already has begun, potentially the most important in a generation or more in shaping the nation's politics.

Democrats have been quick to claim that 2006 will be remembered as the end of a conservative era. No one doubts that the midterm election was a rejection of President Bush's policies in Iraq and of the Republicans' style of governance. But was it really a rejection of conservatism itself? It will take future elections to prove the Democrats' claim.

What the election was not, in the view of strategists in both parties, was a powerful affirmation of the Democratic Party, despite its takeover of the House and Senate. One post-election survey, conducted for the liberal groups Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future, found that both Republicans and Democrats emerged from the contest with negative images.

"This is not an election where one party went down and the other party went up," said Stan Greenberg, whose firm conducted the survey on election night and the night after. "The story still has to be written on how this period becomes a period for Democratic dominance."

Tuesday's election left American politics in a remarkably fluid state. In just six years, the political discussion has moved from analyzing the reasons for the nation's 50-50 divide, to predictions that the Republicans were close to establishing a durable majority, to questions about whether Tuesday marked a pendulum swing back toward the Democrats.

After years of politics aimed at mobilizing and energizing the bases of their respective parties, Democrats and Republicans are again focused on the electorate's shifting center and its potential to change the balance of power in the country. On Tuesday, Republicans decisively lost independents and moderates, but it is not yet a given that those voters will stay with the Democrats. Which party claims that constituency in the future will depend on the answers to a series of questions that will shape the politics of the next two years.

Foremost among them is which party can gain the public's trust to keep Americans safe in a world of terrorism and rogue-state threats. Exit polls suggest Democrats made significant headway this year in reducing what has been a historic Republican advantage. Whether that is permanent or transitory is of central importance.

Equally important is the question of which party can adequately address the twin problems of keeping the United States competitive in a global economy and restoring the social contract that has helped provide economic security to workers and that has been shattered as a result of the corporate restructuring that globalization has brought about.

A third is which party can best navigate the thicket of social and cultural issues in a way that both preserves a sense of American values and accommodates the need for greater tolerance in a society that has become increasingly diverse.

Tuesday's election also suggests that the 2008 campaign will be fought on different geographic terrain. Throughout the decade, the political map of America has been relatively fixed, with Democratic blue states along the coasts and in parts of the upper Midwest, and most of the rest of the country a giant swath of Republican red.

That map now may be, if not obsolete, at least open to revision. Traditionally Republican Virginia increasingly looks like a state turning purple -- neither red or blue on election strategy maps. With former governor Mark R. Warner; his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine; and James Webb's surprise victory over Sen. George Allen (R) last week, Democrats have demonstrated that Republicans no longer can take the state for granted.

As significant as the changes in Virginia is the transition underway in Colorado. Democrats scored important gains there on Tuesday, winning the governorship and a House seat and expanding their state legislative majorities. For all the focus on Ohio as the decisive presidential battleground over the last few years, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be president today if he had won both Virginia and Colorado.

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