The result that caught me by surprise on Tuesday night was PA-12. I wasn’t surprised Critz won, but by nine percentage points in what was supposed to be a Republican year in a district where both Obama and HCR have polled abysmally?
Does this mean that we should start questioning how Republican 2010 going to be? Is even a prediction of a 20-seat Republican gain in the House and and a three seat gain in the Senate too optimistic for the Republicans?
At this point, I think the answer might be a definite “maybe”.
A couple caveats. I’ve heard the argument that Critz benefited substantially by having the election on the same day as a competitive Dem primary. I’m not buying it. Might have been good for one percentage point at best. The best analysis I’ve seen of this issue is (oddly) National Review, where Jim Geraghty strikes this meme down cold.
I also don’t buy the Dems had a registration edge here: that’s no more a factor than it was in the New York districts where the Republican candidates still lost despite a Republican edge. With Obama’s low approvals, this district was tailor made for a Republican win, not a big win for the Democrat.
So below the fold, here’s my thoughts about what PA-12 shows.
1). The enthusiasm gap is a myth (for now)
Most polls have found an enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Dems favoring the former, although the gap has been shrinking in recent weeks. But when push comes to vote, it doesn’t seem like the enthusiasm was there, at least on the Republican side. My theory: disapproval of Obama, unlike the disapproval of Clinton in 1994 or Bush in 2006, is not translating into motivation. My guess is that Obama will hover at 50 percent until November, but he doesn’t seem to inspire the dislike that Clinton and Bush inspired (and of course, if his approval remains at 50 percent it will be higher than either Bush in 2006 or Clinton in 1994). The polls that were picking up a close race or even a small Burns lead were picking up at least some voters who thought they might be motivated to vote for the Republican, but when election day actually came, found better things to do. (minor point: pollsters should not bother to poll congressional districts for special elections. I’m looking at you, PPP). Last thing: the Republican party still has not recovered its reputation, and this is contributing to its problems of getting the vote out.
2). Candidates and campaigns matter
Critz turned out to have the perfect campaign for this district. He took conservative stands (more conservative than Murtha), including opposing HCR (although also opposing repeal), he talked about how he had helped Murtha bring money to the district, and he painted Burns as a right-wing outsourcer who wanted to raise the sales tax and slash social security. It also helped that his most competitive primary opponent, Barbara Hafer, withdrew, meaning he did not have to endure interparty sniping (see below). One reason why the DCCC has become so adept at winning these special elections is by ensuring the Democrats have only one main candidate who fits the district well (I realize there were minor candidates in PA-12). The one place they weren’t able to do that is Hawaii, which come Saturday is a probable loss. The quality of Democratic candidates, and the campaigns they run, will have a good effect in countering any residual gap in enthusiasm that appears.
3). The Republican civil war is hurting Republican candidates.
Burns not only was running against Critz, but also William Russell, who was so bitter about Burns getting the endorsement for the special election that he refused to say anything supportive of his candidacy. Russell took 43 percent of the vote in the primary, and one can imagine a lot of his voters refusing to vote for Burns in the special. This didn’t cost Burns the election, but it certainly hurt (in contrast, I don’t think either of Critz’s primary opponents actively attacked him). While I don’t think Russell campaigned as a tea party guy, this civil war between Republican candidates, tea party endorsed or not, is playing out across the country, with negative implications for the Republicans across the board. Yes, we also see interparty warfare breaking out among Democrats, but mostly in a few Senate races (and of the ones that are left, only Halter-Lincoln comes to mind as comparable).
So, my thought is that we may need to revise our predictions of Republicans gains, to 1 oor 2 or perhaps even in the Senate and the low teens in the House. The caveat: this could change for the negative, if the economy goes south again (Greece, anyone?), if a terrorist attack occurs, or something else unexpected happens. It’s only May, after all. (I’m not sure it can change for the better – I’d say even in the Senate and low teen gain in the house is about the best we can do).