But if you measure an election by the length and breadth of its impact, few — if any — can equal the midterm elections of 2010.
The votes that year changed the political dynamics in Washington and in states from one end of the country to the other; they led to a conservative conquest of the federal bench that will endure for a generation; and they are why the 2024 campaign will be fought with rules that will make it materially harder for the Democratic presidential candidate to prevail, no matter what the voters say. The lasting impact of that year’s elections can also be seen in the defenestration of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her House leadership post this past week, a move driven by the political heirs of the 2010 Republicans, who prided themselves on coming to Washington to engage not in compromise but in combat.
To understand why the 2010 midterms had such an effect, look at the political landscape at the time. Democrats were at a peak of political power not seen since 1965. They had 59 seats in the Senate — Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the race to succeed Democrat Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts had pulled them just under the 60-seat filibuster-proof majority they had held for the first half of 2009 — and 257 seats in the House, margins not seen since LBJ’s landslide decades earlier. They held governorships in 26 states, including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They held 55 percent of seats in state legislatures and controlled a majority of the chambers.
History alone made Democratic losses in the midterms likely: Only three times in the past century had the White House party picked up seats in the House (in 1934, 1998 and 2002). But there were stronger head winds in 2010. Indeed, President Barack Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod knew even before Obama took office that bad times were coming.
“It was December 16, 2008,” he told me. “We had a briefing with our economic team. They told us that the recovery would be in years, not months, because recessions caused by financial crises always take longer. When we left, I said to the president, ‘We’re gonna get our a----- kicked in the midterms.’ ”
By contrast, Republicans were benefiting from the emergence of the tea party, a movement driven by anti-tax sentiment and by cultural and racial resentments. They were profiting as well at the state level from a far more aggressive effort to win control of legislatures. Years before, the GOP launched “Project RedMap,” fueled by the understanding that a relatively small investment of money and energy could yield big results. It was an arena that Democrats had long ignored. It was a lot harder to do fundraisers in Beverly Hills and Martha’s Vineyard for a state assembly race than for a Clinton or an Obama.
On Election Day 2010, the Democrats suffered massive losses at every level. They lost 63 seats in the House and control of the chamber. They lost six Senate seats. They suffered a net loss of six governorships. With special elections and party switches, Democrats lost 720 legislative seats; 26 legislatures were under full GOP control. Combined with the statehouse losses, it meant that the political levers in key states — Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina — were totally in GOP hands. Republicans also gained six attorney general slots, the implications of which would become clear with each passing year as they brought a tsunami of lawsuits against key Obama programs. Just last year, 17 of these Republican state attorneys general tried to get the Supreme Court to overturn President Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump.
The more you add up the consequences of this midterm rout, the bigger the dimensions of 2010 become. In the House, Republicans took the chair of every committee, launching investigations of matters from Benghazi to Operation Fast and Furious to probe — or harass — the Obama administration for the next six years. With the loss of nine Senate seats, the Democrats’ chances of overcoming filibusters essentially vanished. This became acute when it came to federal judgeships. The backlog grew so intense that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced the end of filibusters for all judgeships except Supreme Court seats. That opened the door for Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to extend that decision to the high court once Republicans took the Senate in 2014 and the White House two years later. And with a single-minded focus on the courts — in contrast to the pace of Obama’s nominations — McConnell and Trump succeeded in putting some 220 mostly young conservatives on the bench, including three Supreme Court justices, who will keep the courts conservative for decades. Maybe McConnell would have ended judicial filibusters anyway, despite his professed opposition. (He lives by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s precept that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”) But it was Reid’s response to the loss of Senate seats in 2010 that began the process.
Even more significant is what happened at the state level. Those losses were particularly damaging to Democrats, because 2010 was a “reapportionment” election. In the wake of the census, states would be redrawing district lines for House and state legislative elections. And the hugely increased Republican grip on the process meant, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, that the GOP netted a gain of some 17 House seats, simply by virtue of controlling the maps. Democrats would today have a significantly bigger margin in the House, even after last November’s disappointing results, were it not for that factor. (“My biggest regret,” says Axelrod, “is that we did not pay sufficient attention to those legislative races.”)
This historic move toward Republican domination led to a tsunami of legislation on issues from abortion to tax policy to the power of labor unions. (Wisconsin, the birthplace of 20th-century progressivism, became a right-to-work state.) Most GOP legislatures and governors refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government would have paid for the lion’s share of the costs, while Republican attorneys general launched lawsuits against the Obama administration attempting to gut or kill the health-care law. And Democrats’ continued failure to gain traction in the states — they did not recapture a single legislature in 2020 — means that in many places, redistricting after last year’s census will continue to reflect and expand the Republican power built up in the previous one.
More than a decade later, the 2010 midterms now threaten to do next time what Trump couldn’t do last fall: effectively overturn a presidential vote. After last year’s contest was finally decided, Republicans in several states began to “repair” the mechanisms for future elections: cutting back on absentee ballots and drop boxes, toughening voter ID requirements, and — most significant — arrogating to themselves the final power to validate election results. The willingness of local, county and state officials to certify results has been or will be severely compromised by legislatures from Georgia to Texas to Arizona. These restrictions on access to the ballot, and the increasingly partisan certification processes, mean that legislatures collectively may have a profound, even decisive impact on the outcome of the 2024 campaign.
And, of course, the sin for which Cheney was pushed out of GOP leadership — refusing to go along with Trump’s lies about election fraud — is also a product of the 2010 midterms. The tea party fury that took over the Capitol then paved the way for Trump’s even more explicitly resentment-based politics. And without the lasting influence of the tea party revolutionaries of 11 years ago, it’s hard to imagine that today’s GOP would have abandoned someone like Cheney, a lifelong conservative whose father was an icon of the party for a generation.
Is it inevitable that 2010 will decide 2024? Of course not. Unlike the deep recession Obama faced after the 2008 financial crisis, Biden and the Democrats could be riding the crest of an explosive economic boom. It was, after all, a robust economy that gave Democrats a five-seat House gain in 1998 even though an impeachment investigation of President Bill Clinton was underway for lying under oath. A potential internal brawl within the Republican Party over fealty to the ex-president, not to mention the possibility of criminal indictments hanging over Trump, could drastically affect the political climate.
Still, the evidence is clear: Those 2010 midterms have defined the recent and current political terrain more than any other election of the past half-century.