The 2010 congressional contests may well be remembered as whiplash elections, and not only for the ideologically jarring experience of electing Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress in 2008 and then perhaps electing conservative majorities in Congress two years later.
On a smaller scale, this political season has been filled with twists and surprises. Just this month we've had one major party senatorial candidate, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, run a campaign commercial aimed at dispelling the notion that she is a witch. And a touted GOP House candidate, Rich Iott of Ohio, had to explain that he's not a Nazi, though he does enjoy dressing up as one and running around the woods with similarly garbed pals.
So while everyone agrees that Republicans are poised for a big night on November 2, this election cycle has been too inscrutable to assert conclusively that Republicans are going to retake the House of Representatives, let alone the Senate, which is a much tougher goal. But if the GOP does recapture one or both chambers, there is a nascent conventional wisdom that this would not be an altogether bad thing for the Obama presidency. With majority comes responsibility. Republicans would have skin in the governing game, meaning they could no longer be the "party of no." As President Obama told the New York Times Magazine, if the GOP wins, "the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way."
But to paraphrase the axiom about military plans, conventional wisdom rarely survives first contact with reality. Here are five factors that could complicate or even poison the ability of Obama and a GOP congressional majority to work together.
State-level races: The national House and Senate races will determine who runs Congress for the next two years, but down-ballot contests for governor and control of state legislatures will shape the political landscape for the rest of the decade. Those officeholders are in charge of the redistricting process in 38 states, meaning that substantial GOP state-level gains could position them to draw many congressional districts, allowing them to maximize the number of red districts and squeeze Democratic incumbents. Add to that the fact that population trends mean that historically Democratic states are expected to lose House seats, while traditionally Republican states are expected to gain them. All that translates to as many as 12 to 15 seats shifting to the GOP column in 2012 if the GOP sweeps down-ballot races. Congressional Republican leaders would feel emboldened in their dealings with the White House, knowing that the 2012 congressional map is only likely to broaden their new majority. Conversely, a strong Democratic showing could prompt the White House to hold a hard line against the GOP, betting on the House flipping again in 2012.
How strong is the tea? The chances of the two sides finding common ground on which to compromise are inversely proportional to the number of true-believing Tea Party candidates (you'll know them by their crazy eyes) elected to the new Congress. In many cases—think Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, for example—these folks would come to Washington seeing themselves not simply as a rebuke to Obama and the Democrats but to the Republican establishment and its leaders. Throw in the fact that they believe they have unique insights into the demands and desires of the American people, and you have a recipe for GOP congressional leaders unable to deal with the White House because of an intractable "faction of no" within their caucus.
The '12ers: Congress is usually a rich source of (mostly unsuccessful) presidential candidates. But this year the Hill has only a pair of potential GOP contenders, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. Fox News Channel, by contrast, has four on its payroll (half-term Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum). They are members of a conservative commentariat that has a greater vested interest in ratings-driving bomb-throwing—dire warnings about socialism and sharia—than in deal-making. And as presidential contenders in a party dominated by the Tea Party, they have an affirmative incentive to condemn any compromise or deviation from the base's orthodoxy. [See where Pence gets his campaign money.]