Democratic Armageddon: Five Big Questions Answered

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The people have spoken, the votes have (mostly) been tallied, the punditocracy has rendered its interpretations ad nauseam and ad infinitum. And now President Obama, in a press conference replete with tones of contrition and offers of compromise, has broken his silence on the meaning of the midterms — the results of which he colorfully deemed a "shellacking."

If you're a Republican, of course, no further interpretation of yesterday's events is really required. But if you happen to be a Democrat, and you're not a total politics junkie, you may still be unsure exactly what to make of what went down last night. So, herewith, an attempt to answer fivebig questions that I imagine might be on your mind.

1. How bad was it, really?

For Democrats, pretty goddamn bad. Yes, it's true, the Republicans gained fewer than 70 seats in the House, which some of the more alarmist Cassandras had laid down as the benchmark for Armageddon. But as of now, the GOP has picked up 61, and the final tally after all is said and done is likely to be somewhere between 63 and 67. That's more than Republicans grabbed in 1994, and more than Democrats seized in 1974, after Watergate. It's the worst shellacking, in fact, that either party has suffered since FDR's 81-seat repudiation in 1938. Then throw in at least six Senate seats, ten governorships (including those in pivotal Florida and Ohio), and nineteen statehouses in places such as North Carolina and Wisconsin that had for decades been Democratic, and you can't avoid the conclusion that this was an epic rout.

2. But six seats in the Senate doesn't seem so bad; at least Democrats still have the majority. Isn't that the silver lining around the storm cloud?

Sort of — but it's a fairly tarnished silver. In West Virginia, one of the endangered seats that Democrats managed to hold, Joe Manchin only did so by, in effect, running as a Republican, putting a Grand Canyon's worth of distance between himself and Obama. In Delaware, Nevada, and probably Colorado (the race has yet to be officially called), the party's candidates were only able to save themselves with ample aid and comfort from their opponents, each of whom hailed from the tea party's nuttiest fringes. And it’s still possible that Patty Murray will come up short in Washington State.

3. Speaking of the Senate, how come Democratic losses there weren't nearly as catastrophic as they were in the House?

Senate races always have more of their own wind and weather, with candidates spending so much money on ads that voters come to feel they know them better than those in the House. But in this case there was another factor. Two words: Nancy Pelosi.

Starting as far back as 2006, before she became speaker of the House, Pelosi has been the target of concerted Republican efforts to turn her into a boogeywoman. But those attempts weren't successful until this campaign cycle, at the end of two years in which she was the public face of the Democratic agenda — from the stimulus to health care. The irony is that Pelosi's emergence as the poster girl for liberal overreach was in large part a function of her effectiveness as a legislative leader, the superlative vote-counting and vote-wrangling capacities that allowed her to ram even politically perilous measures such as cap-and-trade through the lower chamber. Unlike Reid, whose unpopularity was largely confined to Nevada, Pelosi was placed front and center in countless GOP ads from coast to coast. The election was almost as much a referendum on her as it was on Obama.

4. Reid's unpopularity may have been mainly restricted to Nevada, but it was pretty deep. How on earth did he survive?

By the skin of his teeth. Indeed, on a night where there were few real surprises, the greatest may have been not just that Reid prevailed but that he managed to score more than 50 percent of the vote — a proportion he never attained in any poll in the past year, and one exceeding his approval rating.

The easiest explanation is that his opponent, Sharron Angle, was even less popular than he was. But that's only part of the story. The other is that Reid benefited mightily from a turnout operation that grew out of the Nevada caucuses in the 2008 Democratic nomination process. Those caucuses were a novel thing, and one that Reid, as majority leader, pushed hard to create. Whether he knew in advance that they would or not, the caucuses helped the Nevada Democratic Party and the unions there build get-out-the-vote muscle they never had before — and that benefited Reid mightily on Election Day two years later.

5. Is there any cause for hope at all?

Two more words: Rand Paul. For anyone who thinks only the fairly sensible Tea Partiers survived, he’ll soon prove them wrong. And the inevitable torment he’ll inflict on Mitch McConnell will be at once helpfully disruptive and endlessly entertaining.