Discourses

Much of the post-election analysis will likely focus on the immediate policy implications of the Democratic takeover of the House and the increase of Republican strength in the Senate, as is appropriate. On this point, both Democrats and Republicans can claim minor victories. Democrats had a good night overall, and can take solace in the fact that the seats they lost in the Senate were in red states. Republicans can look at the history of elections during the middle of a President’s first term, and note that their losses in the House were well within the historical range. The “blue wave” never transpired.

While these immediate implications are interesting, the long-term implications of this election for political parties and Congress are more so. The trend towards “nationalization” of congressional elections continues, in which individual candidates matter less than party identification in congressional races. Not so long ago, red districts elected Democrats with frequency, and blue districts elected Republicans with frequency. Many of those examples – Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri – are now gone.

Some argue that this means parties are back, as strong as they were in the late 19th Century, when the parties voted in lock-step. Under the surface, though, there is still evidence that parties are weaker than they were a century ago. Democrat Joe Manchin won in deep-red West Virginia, and Jon Tester pulled out a victory in somewhat-red Montana. Republicans cruised to victory in gubernatorial elections in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland, while a Democratic candidate won in Kansas. Voters still like to split their tickets, and this generally undermines party cohesion. In this vein, it will be very interesting to see whether Nancy Pelosi (assuming she will be the next Speaker) can hold together the disparate elements of the Democratic Caucus in the House. With a candidate-centered system such as the one we currently have, the glue that holds parties together is weak, and I suspect Pelosi will have a much more difficult time managing intra-party conflict this time around, than she had during Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

is Associate Professor of Political science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

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