The Democratic Sweep, and Where I Called It Wrong Reflections on last week's stunning Democratic sweep of the House and Senate. And a review of where Political Editor Ken Rudin called it wrong.
NPR logo The Democratic Sweep, and Where I Called It Wrong

The Democratic Sweep, and Where I Called It Wrong

They did it. A Democratic House. hide caption

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And a Democratic Senate as well. They needed six. They got six. hide caption

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Any chance the Republicans could keep the Senate ended with the results in Virginia. hide caption

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One of the few bright moments for the GOP came in Tennessee. hide caption

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Nothing doing for the sons of Tom Kean, Harold Ford and Jimmy Carter. But Joe Biden's son won. hide caption

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You knew it was shaping up to be a Democratic year. The polls said so, the voters said so, the candidates said so. Even this column said so. It was Iraq. Widespread unease about the economy. An unpopular president. Scandals involving Republican members of Congress, some of whom either went to prison, were forced to resign, or found themselves under indictment or investigation or suspicion. Not to mention the normal voter response to a six-year itch election, where the party in the White House usually suffers considerable losses in the sixth year of control.

So why, last Tuesday, when the Democrats won enough seats in the House and Senate to recapture control of Congress, which they last had in 1994, were so many people stunned by the enormity of the Republican defeat?

I've been thinking a lot about that, and what I've found is that most of the people stunned were Democrats, not Republicans. Republicans I've spoken to seemed to have known this was coming for quite some time. Democrats were disbelieving, citing their anticipation of some Karl Rove "magic," or figuring some October/November surprise was in the works; I received more than a handful of emails from Democrats convinced that some sinister hidden hand was going to deny them the victory they've waited 12 years for.

And I confess that there were surprises for me as well.

While I thought the GOP would hold onto the Senate — the Dems needed six to take control, and I thought they would get only four — polls gave Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Virginia's Jim Webb an even shot at winning in their respective states. Still, the more I thought about it, the more the results in Virginia were mind-boggling.

Just three months prior, Sen. George Allen (R) was doing little more than going through the motions en route to a second term, with the White House clearly in his sights. But from the Macaca incident, to questions about his heritage, to reports that he had used the "n" word in referring to blacks decades ago, Allen made one misstep after another, going from clear frontrunner to an incumbent on the ropes. Unlike the other GOP senators who were toppled this year — Rick Santorum (PA), Lincoln Chafee (RI), Mike DeWine (OH), Conrad Burns (MT), even Missouri's Jim Talent — Virginia was supposed to be the firewall, the state the Republicans were going to hold in order to keep Harry Reid and Co. out of the majority. It was one of the most startling collapses in recent political memory.

And it's not that I didn't expect the House to go. In last week's column, I wrote that the Democrats would have a net gain of 24 seats (more than the 15 needed to take control); right now it's 30, with some races still to be called. Everyone knew about the vulnerable Republicans in Pennsylvania, in Indiana, in upstate New York. But Jim Ryun in Kansas? Jim Leach in Iowa? Never saw it coming.

In 2004 I missed on only two Senate and four House races the entire year (see 11/9/04 column). My scorecard this year didn't come close to that. Not too bad in the statewide races, wrong on only two gubernatorial and two Senate contests. And I did predict that not one Democratic seat (Sen/House/gov) would be lost to the Republicans. But I underestimated the extent of the GOP collapse in the House; 23 (count 'em) incorrect calls out of 435! Here are all the ones I missed:

HOUSE: In a word, shameful. My wrong calls:

Arizona 05, where Harry Mitchell (D) ousted Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R);

California 11, where Jerry McNerney (D) won the rematch against Rep. Richard Pombo (R);

Connecticut 2, where Rep. Rob Simmons (R) was defeated by Joe Courtney (D);

Connecticut 4, where Rep. Chris Shays (R) held on to defeat Diane Farrell (D);

Connecticut 5, where Chris Murphy (D) defeated Rep. Nancy Johnson (R);

Florida 16, where the seat vacated by Mark Foley (R) was won by Tim Mahoney (D);

Florida 22, where Ron Klein (D) ended the career of Rep. Clay Shaw (R);

Illinois 6, where the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R) went to fellow Republican Peter Roskam;

Iowa 2, where Rep. Jim Leach (R) was stunned by Dave Loebsack (D), a race that wasn't even on my watch list;

Kansas 2, where Nancy Boyda (D) upset Rep. Jim Ryun (R);

Kentucky 3, where the perennially vulnerable Anne Northup (R) finally lost, this time to John Yarmuth (D);

Minnesota 1, where Tim Walz (D) surprised Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R);

Minnesota 6, where Michele Bachmann (R) kept the seat of Senate candidate Mark Kennedy in GOP hands;

New Hampshire 1, where Carol Shea-Porter (D) unexpectedly ousted Rep. Jeb Bradley (R);

New Hampshire 2, where Paul Hodes (D) knocked off the state's other GOP incumbent, Charlie Bass;

New York 19, where John Hall defeated Rep. Sue Kelly (R);

New York 26, where Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) was re-elected despite his role in the party leadership regarding the Mark Foley scandal;

Ohio 1, where Rep. Steve Chabot (R) held on for another term;

Pennsylvania 4, where Jason Altmire ousted Rep. Melissa Hart (R);

Pennsylvania 6, where Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) was re-elected;

Pennsylvania 8, where Patrick Murphy (D) defeated Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R);

Washington 8, where Rep. Dave Reichert won a second term; and

Wisconsin 8, where Steve Kagen (D) beat state Assembly Speaker John Gard (R) for the seat of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green.

DEMOCRATIC HOUSE PICKUPS (as of now): AZ 5 (Hayworth), AZ 8 (open Kolbe), CA 11 (Pombo), CO 7 (open Beauprez), CT 02 (Simmons), CT 5 (Johnson), FL 16 (vacant Foley), FL 22 (Shaw), IN 2 (Chocola), IN 8 (Hostettler), IN 9 (Sodrel), IA 1 (open Nussle), IA 2 (Leach), KS 2 (Ryun), KY 3 (Northup), MN 1 (Gutknecht), NH 1 (Bradley), NH 2 (Bass), NY 19 (Kelly), NY 20 (Sweeney), NY 24 (open Boehlert), NC 11 (Taylor), OH 18 (vacant Ney), PA 4 (Hart), PA 7 (Weldon), PA 8 (Fitzpatrick), PA 10 (Sherwood), TX 22 (vacant DeLay), VT At Large (taken from Independent – open Sanders), WI 8 (open Green).

HOUSE RACES STILL UNDECIDED: There are seven contests that are too close to call. Here is how they currently stand, with my original picks in parentheses.

FL 13: In the race to succeed GOP Senate candidate Katherine Harris, Vern Buchanan (R) held a 373-vote lead over Christine Jennings on election night. Buchanan had declared victory but a recount is underway (Jennings).

GA 12: Rep. John Barrow (D) claimed victory over the man he unseated two years ago, Max Burns (R), but it's still too close to call. Barrow has a lead of about 900 votes. A loss would make him the only Democratic incumbent to go down in 2006 (Barrow).

NM 01: They are counting absentee ballots in this one, where Rep. Heather Wilson (R) leads challenger Patricia Madrid (D) by about 1,400 votes (Madrid).

NC 08: Rep. Robin Hayes (R) clings to a 449-vote lead over Larry Kissell (D); vote is expected to be finalized by Friday (Hayes).

OH 02: Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) leads Victoria Wulsin (D) by about 2,800 votes (Schmidt).

OH 15: Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) leads Mary Jo Kilroy (D) by about 3,500 votes. The counting of provisional ballots in this Columbus-based district won't start until Sunday — a day after the Ohio State-Michigan college football game (Pryce).

WY At-Large: Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) leads Gary Trauner (D) by about 970 votes; an official count is expected on Nov. 15 (Cubin).

In addition, two races go into December runoffs: LA 02, between Democrats Bill Jefferson, the incumbent, and Karen Carter; and TX 23, between Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) and ex-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D).

SENATE: Of the 33 races, I called two incorrectly: Missouri, where Claire McCaskill (D) unseated Sen. Jim Talent (R); and Virginia, where Jim Webb (D) ousted Sen. George Allen (R). The other calls were on the mark, including the Dem pickups in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio and Montana, and the GOP retention in Tennessee.

GOVERNOR: Wrong in two out of 36, both in states where Republicans pulled out a victory — Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected over Mike Hatch, and Nevada, where Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons won the open seat vacated by term-limited Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Itchy and Scratchy. Here's a look back at the so-called "six-year itch" midterm elections over the past half-century. Party in White House indicated in parentheses; bold indicates historical aberration:

2006 (R): Senate — lost 6 seats; House — lost 29 seats, with several more still pending.

1998 (D): Senate - no change; House - gained 5 seats.

1986 (R): Senate - lost 8 seats (lost control); House - lost 5 seats.

1974 (R): Senate - lost 3 seats; House - lost 43 seats.

1966 (D): Senate - lost 3 seats; House - lost 47 seats.

1958 (R): Senate - lost 13 seats; House - lost 47 seats.

Not a single Democratic seat was lost. This is what stood out most for me. Even in election years when Democrats saw great gains – and I talked about this in the Oct. 18 column – at least some Democratic incumbents went down to defeat. The last Democratic landslide year when they didn't lose a single incumbent in the House was 1948, but even then they saw two open House seats falling to the GOP. This year, not a one. Assuming Rep. John Barrow (D) survives in Georgia, and he is ahead as of this writing, every Democratic seat for the House, Senate and governor stayed in Democratic hands, whether an incumbent was running or whether it was an open seat. Remarkable.

State Legislatures. A big night for the Democrats, as they won control of these chambers: Iowa House and Senate, Indiana House, Michigan House, Montana House, Minnesota House, New Hampshire House and Senate, Oregon House, and Wisconsin Senate. On election night, it looked like the Republicans won the Montana House, but the counting of provisional ballots gave it to the Dems.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats will now control both houses in 24 states. Republicans control 16, and nine are split; Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan. Before the election, the GOP controlled 20, Dems 19, and 10 were split.

Let's Go to the Videotape… Some additional election tidbits that you may have missed:

California: Former Gov. Jerry Brown (D), currently the mayor of Oakland, was elected state attorney general.

Connecticut: GOP Senate candidate Alan Schlesinger received 10 percent of the vote, the lowest total any major-party Senate candidate ever received in the state.

Delaware: Beau Biden, son of Sen. Joseph Biden (D), was elected state attorney general.

Florida: Former Rep. Bill McCollum (R) was elected state attorney general.

Indiana: For the first time in state history, a U.S. senator (Republican Dick Lugar) ran without major-party opposition. (I found it intriguing that the Democrats couldn't find a candidate to run against Lugar and yet they were able to knock off three GOP congressmen.)

Kansas: State Attorney General Phill Kline (R), who garnered national attention for his strong opposition to abortion and decision to seek the records of minors who received them, lost his bid for re-election.

Maryland: In the Senate race, Mike Tyson campaigned in vain for his former brother-in-law, Michael Steele. Not only did Ben Cardin (D) win, but he emerged with both ears intact.

Massachusetts: With Deval Patrick's election as governor, Massachusetts Democrats now control the governorship, both Senate seats and every House seat for the first time in state history.

Minnesota: Keith Ellison (D) wins the open 5th District seat, becoming the first Muslim member of Congress in history.

New Hampshire: Gov. John Lynch's (D) 74 percent was the highest in state history.

New York: Democrats swept every statewide office for the first time since 1938.

Ohio: We know that the Democrats won the governorship for the first time in 16 years. Here's something even better, courtesy of The Washington Post's David Broder: Ted Strickland becomes the first person since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1867 to go from Congress to Ohio's governorship.

The Outlook for 2008: If you're wondering about the prospects of Republicans recapturing the Senate in two years, take a look at the numbers. Of the 33 seats at stake, 21 are held by the GOP, only 12 by the Dems. And given the fact that they will be in the minority for the first time in 12 years, several of the Republicans might decide to give it up altogether. Names being bandied about as potential retirees include Ted Stevens (AK) and John Warner (VA), both of whom will be in their 80s. (Look for some GOP retirements in the House, too.) In addition, Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY), re-elected this year with 70 percent of the vote, has been diagnosed with leukemia, so that is a situation to watch as well.

A final thought about the election. Many voters (mostly Democrats) insisted that it was important for the Dems to take control of Congress so there would be checks and balances in government; they sent a message that one-party control is dangerous. Maybe so. Does this mean that if the Democrats are likely to hold Congress in '08, these same voters will want a Republican in the White House?

Time for one question (and a long answer):

Q: Who is going to be the next House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer (MD) or John Murtha (PA)? And what was behind Nancy Pelosi's endorsement of Murtha? — Richard Gold, Washington, D.C.

A: I think the second question is more interesting than the first. For the life of me, I don't know why Pelosi, the presumptive next speaker, decided to publicly come out for Murtha. Yes, I know she is close with Murtha, and she is not exactly pals with Hoyer, her No. 2 in the Democratic House hierarchy. Pelosi and Hoyer ran against each other in 2001 for the Whip position that was being vacated by Michigan's David Bonior (and Murtha was her campaign manager). It's long been said that Pelosi has a long memory for those who cross her, and perhaps Hoyer is learning that first hand.

And certainly part of this is political as well. Murtha is a former hawk who has become a national symbol of the Democrats' anger over the war in Iraq, a view that Pelosi shares. But given the fact that most people expect Hoyer to win the contest (including me) — the election is on Thursday — I found it surprising that Pelosi would stick her neck out for someone who not only could lose, but send a signal at the same time that she's not happy about the person who is expected to prevail. A strange message to send as Democrats are still celebrating their takeover of the House.

Another thought: For the past several days, some honesty-in-government types have been reminding everyone about the ethics questions concerning Murtha that go as far back as his alleged involvement in the Abscam scandal in 1980.

Murtha was caught on tape being offered a bribe by an undercover FBI agent posing as an Arab businessman. He rejected the bribe, saying, "I'm not interested at this point." Murtha was an unindicted co-conspirator but was never charged.

Murtha said that he is a victim of "swiftboating" by Hoyer's allies. But questions about Murtha have always been just below the surface; I just find it interesting that there was no mention of this during the debate over Iraq, when he became a hero to those who oppose the war.

Another Pelosi move that will be closely watched is her choice to head up the House Intelligence Committee. Ordinarily it would be the senior Democrat, Jane Harman of Calif., but once again, a personal relationship plays a role: Pelosi is not wild about Harman, either.

And it's political too: Although Harman has become a central figure in the party's national security debate, Pelosi is said to feel that the more moderate Harman failed to aggressively go after the Bush administration on prewar Iraq intelligence failures. (For the record, Harman has reached the eight-year limit for service on the committee, but Pelosi would have the prerogative to extend her term.)

Pelosi is reported as favoring Alcee Hastings of Florida instead as the committee chairman. It's a move that would presumably be well received by the Congressional Black Caucus, which has given Pelosi heat over the years, most recently when she forced Rep. William Jefferson (LA), the subject of a federal bribery investigation, off the Ways and Means Committee. But picking Hastings would send another interesting message regarding ethics, given the fact that when he was a federal judge in the late 1980s, Hastings was impeached and removed from office (by a Democratic Congress) over a bribery charge. Another candidate for the post is said to be Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

I would suspect that the last thing the Democrats want as they finally take control is a petty intra-party squabble over national security — the issue that kept the GOP in control in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

The House Republicans hold their leadership elections a day later, on Friday, and they, too, have decisions to make. Speaker Dennis Hastert has said he will not attempt to be the new minority leader, and some think that decision is the prelude to Hastert announcing his resignation from Congress altogether. The longest-serving GOP House speaker in history, Hastert got poor reviews over his handling of the underage congressional page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL).

Republican floor leader John Boehner (OH) is attempting to keep his job, but he is being challenged from the right by Mike Pence (IN); a third candidate, Joe Barton (TX), is also running. Similarly, Roy Blunt (MO), the whip, faces opposition from the more-conservative John Shadegg (AZ).

"POLITICAL JUNKIE" CONTINUES ON NPR'S TALK OF THE NATION: Despite popular demand, the "Political Junkie" segment on TOTN will continue to run every Wednesday on NPR, usually around 2:40 p.m. And you thought you had heard the last of us. Check local listings to see if your NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can always hear it on the Web at This week: House leadership elections, and the latest on the 2008 presidential wannabes.

More Bad News: It looks like the NPR weekly political podcast, "It's All Politics," is continuing as well. Check out the podcast page on the NPR Web site for more details.

WANT AN NPR CONVENTION PIN? Last chance to get an NPR lapel pin from the 2004 national conventions in time for the holidays. If you have a 2006 Senate, House or governor campaign button that I don't have, I will gladly offer an NPR pin for trade. Send a photocopy of what you have to Political Junkie, 635 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20001.

Please … If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich announces his support of Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA) to be the next House Majority Whip (Nov. 15, 1994). But Walker will be defeated in the election by Texas' Tom DeLay, 119-80; Bill McCollum of Florida finished a distant third.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: