Five Myths About the 2010 Midterm Elections

The 24-hour punditry cycle has produced some narratives about the 2010 midterm election that are less than factual.  I tackle five of them here.

It wasn’t as bad as expected.  This was a prominent theme in MSNBC’s coverage of Election day, although Geraldine Ferraro said it outright on Fox News.  Sure, Democrats did not gain the senate, but the outcome was much worse for Democrats than most pundits predicted.  At the federal level, after all the votes are counted, Republicans are expected to gain 65 seats, possibly surpassing the largest swing on record from 1938.  Compare this to the Newt Gingrich-led 1994 Republican Revolution where the GOP picked up 54 House seats. 

At the state level, Republicans have already picked up 19 chambers, and when the dust settles, that number is likely to exceed the record of 20 set in 1994.  This shift toward Republican power is very important given that state legislatures will be involved in the process of redrawing congressional districts based on the 2010 census.  In other words, this midterm election will have a Republican power rippled effect for years to come as district lines are redrawn to maximize party electability.

It was another “Year of the Woman.” As in 1992, the “Year of the Woman” label was applied to the 2010 midterms.  1992 was dubbed this because 24 women were elected to the House, six female senators were elected, and California became the first state to be represented by women in the Senate.  That’s right.  A whopping 6% in each chamber in a country where 51% of the citizens are female and women turn out to vote at a higher rate than men.  This percentage rose slowly in the intervening years and plateaued at 17%, until the 2010 midterm.

If current projections hold, the 2010 midterm election will reverse a 30-year trend of women gaining seats in Congress.  The slip from 17% to 16% is significant because it confirms what a handful of scholars have feared — that we have hit a ceiling of representation for women in Congress that requires fundamental alterations to political and societal institutions to break through.

One silver living is that three states elected women as their governors for the first time (Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma).  Haley is the first Indian-American governor in the U.S., and Martinez is the first Latina to be elected to this office. 

However, these women (all Republican) do not espouse pro-woman agendas, which illustrates how limited representational equality is in the larger fight for gender equity.  But at least their presence will normalize women in positions of political power and show girls/young women that ambition is just fine.

The Tea Party has taken over Congress.  While Tea Party candidates have been vocal in this election, only one-third of candidates who identify with this movement actually won their seat.  This translates into about 40 members in the House — less than 10% of the entire body.  If Tea Party members vote as a block, they may have some success in blocking legislation, but they will not be able to enact anything on their own without aligning with one of the major parties (Republicans).

The 2008 Republican landslide means voter endorsement of a Republican/Tea Party agenda.  This election was about jobs and anti-incumbency sentiment, not about love for Republicans.  While voters are mad at Democrats and President Obama, 43% say neither political party represents the American people. 

And a majority of voters do not support the Republican/Tea Party agenda.  Two-thirds of Americans oppose privatizing Social Security, give those making $250,000 or more a tax break, eliminating the Department of Education, raising the retirement age, eliminating the minimum wage, or allowing insurance companies to deny health care coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  This election is anything but a policy mandate.

Sarah Palin’s endorsements didn’t matter.  Some pundits on election night chose to focus on Palin’s high-profile endorsee losses (e.g., Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell), but she ended the day with a winning scorecard.  Candidates Palin backed won 37 of 52 House contests and 6-in-10 Senate races. Seven of her gubernatorial endorsees were victorious. 

Palin is laying the groundwork for a 2012 presidential run, and her involvement in the 2010 midterms was strategic and to her benefit.  Her work to get Kelly Ayotte elected in New Hampshire will especially pay off when this state hosts the first presidential primary of the 2012 election season.

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