Aftermath: GOP on double secret probation

What do we call an election that surpasses 1994 and falls short of 1894 for Republicans?  Probation.  John Boehner struck the right chord in his victory speech last night in acknowledging that the GOP shouldn’t celebrate because of the bleak environment, but also because the GOP hasn’t yet earned trust after its spending and government-expanding binge from 2001-6.  Voters recognized an unvarnished truth in the midterm elections last night, which is that while Republicans did a poor job in that period, Democrats turned out to be much, much worse.

HOUSE: The Republican wave in the House turned out to be potent indeed, but not as potent as some of the final polling indicated [see update].  Republicans gained at least 60 seats last night in a rout, with 13 seats still left to be decided and at least a couple more pickups on hand.  We’ll get the final tally by late today, but the Democratic losses are plain to see.  Gone are such longterm stalwarts as Ike Skelton in Missouri, the powerful chair of the Armed Services Committee, Jim Oberstar, as well as a raft of Blue Dogs like Walt Minnick, Gene Taylor, and others.  Dan Boren won in Oklahoma mainly because he voted Republican on all the major issues in Congress last year.  Democrats lost the center of the country last night, with enclaves in the Upper Midwest and the Four Corners.  The Rust Belt turned deep red.  Geographically, the Democratic caucus has become a coastal phenomenon.

That doesn’t presage a movement towards compromise.  The Republicans who got elected will justifiably feel they have a mandate for fiscal restraint and smaller-government policies.   They will, however, face a more unified Democratic caucus that just lost almost all of its moderate wing.  In fact, having survived the Teanami, those remaining will probably feel even more secure in their position and less likely to compromise.  Expect grand battles of policy in the next House, with Republicans having the votes to make their mandate stick.

SENATE: Here the situation is murkier.  As of this morning, the GOP has picked up six seats, a good result in any year, but perhaps a little underwhelming given the size of the wave in the House.  They could get two more in Washington and Colorado, where they currently trail by just a handful of votes.  Their successes came entirely in the middle of the country with the exception of Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey barely won an open seat from Joe Sestak.  Republicans failed to score victories over two of their biggest targets, Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, the former of which appeared ripe for defeat.

In the next session of Congress, this Senate will not produce much that doesn’t carry significant bipartisan support.   Republicans can now easily block legislation like cap-and-trade and Card Check, and those items won’t even make a serious appearance on the agenda as a result.  Republicans have one significant edge in the next two years, which is the 2012 election and the large number of Democrats who have to defend their seats.  A number of them won seats on platforms of fiscal responsibility, and they have the next two years to build some bona fides on those issues before running into a buzzsaw like last night’s wave if they fail.  The GOP won’t officially control the agenda, but with Democrats like Jon Tester, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, and Mark Pryor looking over their shoulders, they may have more strength on fiscal restraint and smaller government than one might think.

Update: Some people believe I’m a little too dour on the House results, and they have a point; I didn’t really underscore enough what an enormous victory this was for Republicans.   It’s the biggest one-cycle swing in the House for decades — and given the protection given incumbents these days through gerrymandering, I’m not sure that the GOP could have won more in one election anyway.  More on that later.