The wave’s momentum, the Palin effect, and Obama’s rationale for defeat

Jon Ward Contributor
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Finally, it’s time to vote. But there’s a full day left to wait for results. In the meantime, here are three dominant political themes for the days ahead.

One, the Republican wave gained serious momentum over the last three days and could be a tsunami. Two, the divisions within the Republican Party may be just a prelude to what happens starting this week. And three, President Obama appears ready to offer up the same explanation he’s given after past setbacks: voters don’t understand what he’s doing and that’s why they don’t like it.

The Wave is getting bigger by the hour

A series of data points moved the needle back closer to panic for Senate Democrats over the weekend and through Monday. Indicators in virtually every close race for Democratic-held seats – Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania – moved those contests toward the Republican. And in Washington, last minute polls made clear that Sen. Patty Murray will have to sweat it out Tuesday night, possibly keeping the entire nation waiting to see who controls the Senate. The two remaining wild cards are West Virginia and Alaska. Polls tightened in the Mountaineer state, and Republican Joe Miller got a much-needed dose of good news Monday in the form of a Public Policy Polling survey that showed him with 37 points to 30 points for both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams.

It seemed over the weekend as if a Senate takeover for Republicans was out of the question. But on Election Day, the energy is going to the right in a big way and no one knows how far that goes. That said, polls close in West Virginia at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and that will tell us a lot. If Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin can’t pull that race out despite holding a few point-edge in polls (Nate Silver of the New York Times gives him an 88 percent chance of winning), it’s going to be a very long night for Democrats.

In the House, estimates of how far above 39 seats the Republican pickup would go have been climbing as well. Last week it was 50 to 60 seats. Over the weekend prognosticators began to mention the 70-seat threshold. The Cook Political Report’s last analysis showed 25 guaranteed GOP pickups, with an additional 49 Democratic-held seats in the tossup category. Democrats can win half the tossups and still see Republicans gain 50 seats.

One of the first races to look for is at 6 p.m., when the first polls of the day close in Indiana and Kentucky. If Rep. Joe Donnelly, the incumbent Democrat in Indiana’s 2nd district, can’t defeat Republican challenger Jackie Walorski, that might be the first sign that GOP gains are going to be much higher than 50 seats. If Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly in Virginia’s 11th district and Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher in Virginia’s 9th district get knocked out when polls there close at 7 p.m., that will be the second sign of an epic wave.

The GOP jockeying for 2012 may make infighting to date look tame

The 2010 election came to a close Monday with Sarah Palin joking that reporters who wrote unflattering things about her were pedophiles, days after her latest dust up with Karl Rove, while RNC Chairman Michael Steele told critics of the former Alaska governor to “shut up.”

Things may just be getting started. No one, besides Rove, will say it yet on the record, but the thought of a Palin candidacy in 2012 terrifies many Republicans working in politics. As Politico reported in a story that prompted Palin’s media-bashing, there are active and organized discussions around how to prevent the idea of a Palin candidacy from gaining steam. But things have already moved so fast to get to this point. As recently as September, a Palin run was considered to be highly unlikely. Republicans could plot and plan and find that during the intervening time enough momentum has built up to make stopping Palin nearly impossible. Or Palin could flame out. Either way, the intrigue and back-biting surrounding the never-boring political celebrity will only intensify after the results from the election are in.

There is also the matter of who will run the RNC. Steele is widely assumed to have been laying the groundwork for a second term for some time, visiting and giving cash to such far-flung committee members as those in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and forging an alliance with Palin. But many Republicans view a second Steele term with nearly as much alarm as they do a Palin candidacy for the White House, based largely on how Steele spent large amounts of RNC cash instead of stewarding it so that it could be distributed to state parties at election time. The common view is that Republicans got lucky this cycle with good conditions but will have to get their house in order, and Steele out of it, if they want to capitalize in 2012. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who chaired the RNC in the early 90s, on Monday said he would not want to do so again, and indicated he is thinking very seriously about running president.

All of this, of course, ignores the potential conflict that could ensue between Republican leaders in Congress and new congressmen and senators who have been sent to Washington with a mandate from the Tea Party to shake things up.

Does Obama’s still think his problem is a lack of communication?

Every time Obama has been dealt a setback, particularly after Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown won Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in January, the president has sought to explain it away by saying he wasn’t making himself and his policies clear enough.

“One of the things that I have learned in Washington is you have to repeat yourself a lot because unfortunately it doesn’t penetrate,” he said in the days after the Brown win. “What I haven’t always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people in a way that during the campaign you could do.”

The president has been sounding the same notes in the days leading up to an Election Day that could be historically bad for his party.

“Our attitude,” Obama said Oct. 21 in Seattle when explaining his first two years in office, “was we just had to get the policy right, and we did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on.”

“But I think that we have the opportunity now that the economy is more stabilized to be as clear as possible with folks about what we’ve done,” he said.

But now, even pundits and lawmakers on his side are beginning to prod Obama to admit that maybe if the majority of the country doesn’t think something is the right thing, he may be wrong.

“His arrogance led him to assume: If I build it, they will understand. He can’t get the gratitude he feels he deserves for his achievements if no one knows what he achieved and why those achievements are so vital,” wrote Maureen Dowd on Monday. “Once it seemed impressive that he was so comfortable in his own skin. Now that comfort comes across as an unwillingness to be wrong.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, the retiring Indiana Democrat, also Monday echoed what is now a common criticism, that Obama should have focused on job and economic growth rather than a massive health care overhaul during his first 12 months in office.

“We can save ourselves, the president can save himself, but we’ve got to learn from this,” Bayh said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “That involves stepping back and not saying it’s just a communications problem or they’re thinking with the wrong parts of their brain. It could be that we’re not right all of the time and we have to take a hard look at some of the proposals that we’ve made.”

“We have to listen to what the public is saying.”

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