Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Democrats’ Fab Four, Revisited

Thomas F. Schaller, Guest Columnist December 2nd, 2010

Sandwiched between the Democrats’ disappointing 2002 election cycle and their 2010 “shellacking,” the party made significant gains during the three, mid-decade intervening elections of 2004, 2006 and 2008. And nowhere were the party’s gains more impressive than in four states: Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.

This quartet of states has emerged as a purple battleground over which the two major parties have recently fought for political supremacy and, by extension, majority status nationally. And they are an interesting mix of states, at that: Colorado is a fast-growing Interior West state with a sizable Hispanic population; New Hampshire is an iconoclastic New England state whose southern counties have been steadily colonized by Boston suburbanites; Ohio is an aging, post-industrial Midwest state that has steadily lost jobs and residents to other parts of the country; and Virginia is a split-personality state coupling a white, conservative Appalachian spine and a multi-ethnic, Northern Virginia tech park explosion.

Despite these differences, 2010 proved prosperous for the GOP in all four. Let’s look at results in federal races and governors contest in each state (party identifiers are omitted below because, except where noted otherwise, every 2010 victor mentioned is a Republican and every defeated candidate a Democrat):

Colorado

Colorado witnessed so many great Democratic moments during the 2004 through 2008 cycles: The symbolically powerful victories in 2004 of the Hispanic brothers John and Ken Salazar to the House and Senate, respectively; the flip of both chambers of the state legislature and governor’s office from Republican to Democratic in 2006; and, of course, the record crowd that packed Denver’s Invesco Field for then-presidential nominee Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The state that takes its name from an Anglicized version of “color rojo”—in recognition of the state’s famed red rocks—appeared to be turning irrevocably blue.

The 2010 results restored some of Colorado’s red hue. The narrow victory by Democrat Michael Bennet, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar when he left to serve as Interior Secretary, provided one of the Democrats’ few bright spots on election night 2010. But John Salazar was less fortunate, losing by 5 points to Scott Tipton in the 3rd District. Betsy Markey, another of the Democrats’ rising freshman stars, was ousted by Cory Gardner in suburban Denver’s 4th District.

The governor’s race was more interesting. Thanks to a split on the right caused by former congressman and presidential aspirant Tom Tancredo’s immigration-inspired, third party candidacy, the conservative-Republican vote was split, allowing Denver mayor John Hickenlooper to hold for Democrats the seat vacated by fellow Democrat Bill Ritter.

New Hampshire

In a matter of just a few cycles, New Hampshire went from one of the most consistently and uniformly Republican bastions to a suddenly Democratic state from top to bottom. The Granite State was George W. Bush’s sole victory from New England to the Mid-Atlantic in 2000. But by 2006, and for the first time in more than a century, Democrats simultaneously controlled the state legislature, governor’s office, and the entire House delegation. In 2010, the GOP clawed back much of those losses overnight.

Democratic House incumbent Paul Hodes made the fatal error of running for Senate in a strong Republican cycle. He lost soundly to state attorney general Kelly Ayotte and, in the process, vacated the seat his predecessor Charlie Bass promptly recaptured. In the state’s other House contest, Hodes’ fellow 2006 classmate Carol Shea Porter was easily defeated by Frank Guinta.

The lone bright spot for New Hampshire Democrats was that John Lynch won a fourth, two-year term as governor. But Lynch’s 53 percent to 46 percent victory over Republican John Stephen was well below his 70-plus share in each of his two previous reelections.

Ohio

The Buckeye State may have been the Democrats’ biggest black eye state. Not only did the party lose a golden opportunity to win a Senate seat vacated by the embattled, retiring Republican George Voinovich, but the Democrats’ golden boy Governor Ted Strickland lost his reelection bid as did a remarkable five House incumbents.

In the Senate race, former congressman and OMB director Rob Portman easily dispatched Lee Fisher, capturing 57 percent of the vote. But the real damage on the federal level was the defeat of five freshmen or sophomore members of the Democrats’ U.S. House delegation: Steve Driehaus lost his seat back to Steve Chabot in OH-1; Bill Johnson narrowly defeated Charlie Wilson in Strickland’s former seat in the 6th District; in OH-15, rookie congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy fell to Steve Stivers; fellow frosh John Boccieri lost to Jim Renacci in OH-16; and Rob Gibbs beat Zack Space by a comfortable margin in the 18th District.

In the battle to control Columbus, Strickland kept the race close against another former GOP congressman, John Kasich, in a contest complicated by Libertarian and Green Party candidates. But the Republican tide was enough to carry Kasich to an almost 3-point victory, giving the Republicans five gubernatorial pickups in the region stretching between Pennsylvania and Iowa.

Virginia

If the 2009 state elections are included as part of the 2009-2010 biennial federal cycle, the Commonwealth of Virginia also witnessed a significant Republican resurgence. Along with fellow partisan Chris Christie of New Jersey, new governor Robert McDonnell’s victory a year ago November sent an early warning sign to Democrats that 2010 could be electorally crippling. A year later, those warnings were confirmed.

Fortunate that neither of the state’s two Senate seats were on the ballot, Democrats nevertheless lost a tested veteran and two promising rookies from its House delegation. Fourteen-term incumbent Rich Boucher, who had survived bad Democratic cycles in the past, could not survive the 2010 wave, losing to Morgan Griffith in the 9th District. Freshmen Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello were also deprived second terms—with Perriello’s defeat especially painful because he was pegged as a rising young star from a new South district whom Obama made a special effort to rescue in thanks for Perriello’s loyal support on key House floor votes.

Not long ago, Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia were akin to the Fab Four Democratic states. The 2010 results changed all that. Overall, Democratic losses were most severe in Ohio and least deflating in Colorado, with New Hampshire and Virginia somewhere in between. These four states alone accounted for just shy of one-fifth of the Republicans’ House gains, and two of the party’s nine net gubernatorial pickups during the past 13 months.

Despite their regional and demographic diversity, these four states are microcosmic bellwethers of two-party competitiveness nationally. And thus the 2010 results prove that, just two years after Obama’s precedent-setting victory, America remains entrenched in a period of partisan dealignment and gridlock, and divided government nationally. Despite steady Republican gains since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, followed by a stinging Republican rebuke by a revitalized Democratic Party during the late stages of George W. Bush’s presidency, the shifting fortunes of the two major parties in these four states suggest that this saga of partisan affairs may well continue for some time.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South and national political columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Schaller’s book about the Republican Party after Ronald Reagan’s presidency is forthcoming from Yale University Press.