Back-to-back Democratic landslides in 2006 and 2008 have led House Democrats to over-perform, leaving little room for additional gains in 2010. Moreover, the Obama turnout of liberals, minorities, and young people is unlikely to be repeated, leaving Democrats swept in by huge turnouts in 2008 at the mercy of a smaller, more conservative electorate in 2010. Ultimately, the unemployment rate and events in Afghanistan will shape an electorate already predisposed to be more hostile to Democrats than in 2008.
4. Republicans face a tough draw in the Senate, where more GOP seats are up for re-election than Democratic seats. The GOP has six vacant seats to contend with (and a probable seventh in Texas). This makes substantial Senate gains harder to come by (unlike in 1994, when more Democratic seats were up). Nevertheless, Republicans are likely to gain because of exceptionally good recruiting and atmospheric shifts.
5. Unlike in 1994, few vulnerable Democratic seats are currently open heading into the mid-terms. In 1994, the GOP picked up over 20 seats from districts where incumbent Democrats retired.
Also in 1994, the House GOP had been out of power for 40 years. No one could really fathom or relate to what a Republican takeover would mean, except change. In 2010, many voters still have a bitter aftertaste from GOP rule (which only ended in 2006) and will be more reluctant to vote for a Republican as an automatic alternative.
6. Republican recruiting in both the House and Senate has been extraordinary, reflecting aggressive leadership and a favorable political climate. The one limitation is that GOP House recruiting is less national in scope than in 1994, with gaps in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The GOP is still a largely regional party (a majority of the GOP conference is from the South and border states). To build a winning coalition, the party must move away from litmus tests and build a more nationalized coalition.
7. Taxes continue to be toxic. In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds suggested he might raise taxes, while Republican Bob McDonnell said he wouldn't. High-income suburbs like Loudoun and Fairfax counties, which had voted Democratic for Obama, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb, snapped back to give the Republicans the advantage (Loudoun with 60 percent), with the GOP picking up local delegate seats as well. Taxes continue to motivate the Republican and independent base.
In New Jersey, Somerset County, which had gone for Obama, went big for Republican Chris Christie, along with wealthy Morris County. More troubling for Democrats, blue-collar lunch bucket Democrats in Middlesex, Passaic, and across New Jersey reacted to high taxes.
In Virginia, an even harsher reaction to cap-and-trade policies of the Obama administration pushed coal-country counties strongly into the Republican column. The GOP picked up a State House seat in the middle of coal country for the first time ever with 57 percent, while the 9th Congressional District gave McDonald his largest margin, 68 percent of the vote. Reactions to Obama's energy policies were localized, but very strong.
In closing, the marching orders for the two parties are clear. Democrats must get the economy and Afghanistan under control. High unemployment for the electorate will equate to higher unemployment for Democrats. Similarly, American casualties and the perception of a mismanaged campaign against the Taliban will spell trouble at the ballot box.
For their part, Republicans must tame the whirlwind of discontent into focused, disciplined campaigns against Democratic candidates. If the party continues to fight among itself, the enthusiasm and intensity exhibited Tuesday will flame out and result in nothing.