Up until yesterday morning, most analysts, whether of the qualitative or quantitative bent, believed that the midterm election would be a victory for Republicans, but not a “wave.” Yes, they’d probably take the Senate, if for no other reason than an advantageous map, and they’d add a few seats to their House majority, but the gains would be limited, and Democrats were likely to pick up a few governorships.
You can define a wave any way you like, but the best definition may be that it’s an election where the peculiarities of each individual race cease to matter, and all the close races go one way. That’s exactly what happened yesterday.
Not only was Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire the only Democratic Senate candidate who won a race that a week ago looked to be close, there were races that everyone assumed would be blowout Democratic wins that turned into either razor-thin margins (like Mark Warner’s apparent win in Virginia) or even Republican steals (like the governor’s race in Maryland).
So we’ve had yet another wave election — after waves in 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2002. Waves are almost becoming the norm.
I’ll offer my explanation of why an election leaning one way turned into a wave in a moment. But briefly, here’s where things stand this morning:
Senate: If Republicans prevail in Alaska and in next month’s runoff in Louisiana, as they are expected to, they will have picked up nine seats, leaving them with a 54-46 majority. While that’s not out of the range of what often occurs in the sixth year of a presidency (Democrats netted six seats in 2006 and eight in 1986), it was at the high end of all the projections.
House: While there are still some races counting, for now Republicans have netted 13 seats. Most projections had them gaining between 5 and 15, so once again this result is at the high end but not out of the range of what was predicted.
Governors: Here the results were bad for Democrats, but slightly less abysmal. While Republicans won most of the close races — most notably in Florida and Wisconsin — and picked up a stunning victory in Maryland, where you could fit all the state’s Republican voters into a mid-size SUV, Democrats are holding on to leads in a few states that were predicted to be close, like Colorado and Connecticut.
State legislatures: As expected, Republicans gained control of legislative chambers in a few states, including West Virginia and Nevada.
Ballot measures: This was the one bright spot for liberals. Minimum wage increases passed in all four states where they were on the ballot (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota), even though all were heavily Republican states. “Personhood” measures failed in both Colorado and North Dakota. Oregon and Alaska approved measures legalizing recreational marijuana use and establishing a regulated market, while a D.C. measure that passed easily would make possession of small amounts legal (we’ll have to wait to see whether Congress intervenes on the implementation).
Washington state had two competing measures on guns, one mandating universal background checks and an NRA-backed one forestalling background checks. The universal checks won, and the NRA’s measure lost.
The Republicans will obviously have their own narrative about why this election turned out how it did, and that narrative will presume that the electorate as a whole was persuaded to reject Obama’s policies and embrace the GOP agenda. Republicans will say that they won because the American people as a whole are hungering for tax cuts, slashing the EPA, and returning the health care system back to the good old days of 50 million uninsured and denials for pre-existing conditions, and finally realized it after all the polls were in. You’ll notice that every party wants to talk about its terrific ground game right up until election day, but the day after, the winners will tell you that the election wasn’t wasn’t about turnout at all.
But as it usually is in midterms, turnout was everything. In the end, more Republicans than expected went to the polls, and more Democrats than expected stayed home. That’s what turns a win into a wave.