Littwin: A Republican wave, a Democratic disaster and a mystery
Was it Hickenlooper, or was it Obama?
Was it Michael Bennet, or was it Harry Reid?
Was it Ebola, or was it ISIS?
Was it the six-year itch or a full-body rash?
Someone, or something, has to take the blame. We know what happened, but we don’t really know why.
What we know is that Election 2014 was a Democratic disaster and nothing less than that. Yes, there was talk of a possible national Republican wave, but this was not a wave. This was more an unforeseen storm that seemed to have swept through Colorado on its way through much of the nation. No one predicted it. And yet the winning party, according to the polls, is wildly unpopular — far more unpopular than the Democrats and more unpopular than Barack Obama.
So what is the explanation?
Obviously, what happened in Colorado didn’t happen in isolation. It is part of a national story. You can explain it by looking at the whiter, older midterm electorate. You can explain it by the years of successful demonization of Obamacare that erupted into a national rejection of a president who two years before had been re-elected easily.
But does any of that really explain how both houses of the Colorado Legislature were in danger of flipping from Democratic control to Republican control? Did Obama’s low approval numbers in the state really affect House races in Jefferson County? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around.
Nothing really makes sense here. Or not enough sense. The issues don’t tell us anything. Pot legalization is the hot new thing. We’re in the midst of a gay-rights revolution. Everyone but the Republican House seems to favor immigration reform. According to the polls, even unpopular Obamacare isn’t all that unpopular. A majority wants to fix it, not kill it. Republicans will say the election signaled a yearning for smaller government, but you can’t really make that argument and make the 47 percent argument at the same time.
It’s easy enough in Colorado to say that Mark Udall’s war-on-women strategy explains everything in his unexpectedly large defeat. But it can’t explain Senate losses for Democrats in purple North Carolina or purple Iowa.
Cory Gardner’s successful gamble, leaving his safest of safe House seats to challenge Udall, may, in fact, be a model for Republicans everywhere — the conservative voter with the moderate rhetoric and the happy-warrior smile. But it wasn’t just Gardner. In taking the U.S. Senate, Republicans swept the red states and missed in only one purple state.
Gardner will now be a national Republican rock star. He’s already one in Colorado as the first Republican to win a Senate seat here since 2002. Sure, he was good, but maybe he was also in the right place at the absolutely right time.
We know the Hickenlooper story, of how the quirky gov went from his own kind of model — the anti-partisan Democrat who sought compromise and collaboration — to the governor who won re-election in a squeaker to Bob Beauprez. That’s the same Beauprez who was basically a throw-in, the guy recruited to keep Tom Tancredo off the ticket, the retread who lost by 17 points the last time he ran for governor.
But the story doesn’t end there. Now we know that in this election — wherein Hickenlooper is the one saving Democratic grace — there are now Republican governors in Massachusetts, in Maryland, in Illinois. We know that unpopular Republican governors survived in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Florida.
Where does the Hickenlooper story of gaffes and misplays fit into that narrative? It doesn’t. Or it doesn’t entirely, anyway.
It’s a cliche, but one of the true ones, that the presidential race starts today. I wrote the other day about the chaos theory, in which Ted Cruz and the Cruzites would never let Senate Republicans get to 51 votes unless Cruz gets his way. He wants to turn the Senate into the House while he and Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and the rest are simultaneously running for president.
Is that what America voted for? Is that what Colorado voted for?
The analysts and pundits will be working on this one for years. For two years, anyway. I doubt we’ll know what happened this time around until at least 2016. The numbers may tell us now that there really are two different American electorates — the off-year ones and the on-year ones, and that the story is no more complicated than that.
But it wasn’t long ago that George W. Bush won two elections — OK, there’s an asterisk in 2000, but still — and Democrats were winning off-year elections.
It’s late as I write this. Hickenlooper has built an 8,000-vote lead. Gardner still has an 8,000-watt smile. The U.S. Senate had flipped by 10 p.m. By 3 a.m., the state Legislature was still dangling in midair.
All I know for sure is the political world has turned upside down, which explains everything and, yes, explains nothing.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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