Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Year That Was: A Very, Very, Very Weird One in Politics

By Stuart Rothenberg

Every so often, we have a very odd political year. The year 2006 was one of them.

Here’s a little test. Which one of the following things did you expect to happen 12 months ago? Please, be honest.

• Democrats would win the Senate;

• Republican Reps. Jim Leach (Iowa), Jeb Bradley (N.H.) and Jim Ryun (Kan.) would lose in the same election in which Republican Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.) would win;

• Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) would find out that he’s Jewish;

• A former Prince George’s County executive and five sitting County Council members — all of them Democrats and all of them black — would endorse the Republican Senate candidate in Maryland; or

• Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) would announce that he would not run for president in 2008.

And for good measure, let’s add another development. How many of you figured that a sitting Senator would lose his bid for renomination and yet win his campaign for re-election?

(I’m not even going to factor in the time in February that Vice President Cheney shot his friend in the face or the e-mail scandal of the fall surrounding former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley.)

Like I said, it was a very strange year.

The victories of Shays, Gerlach and Wilson, given the Democratic wave that washed over the country and resulted in the defeat of 21 incumbents, still strikes me as incredible. Two of the three were running against the same opponents who almost beat them in 2004, and all three represent precisely the kind of districts likely to swing Democratic in a wave election.

Their victories should prove once and for all that campaigns matter. Sure, district fundamentals are very important, and the national environment explains many of the House outcomes this year. But if Shays, Gerlach and Wilson had not run the types of campaigns they did, each would have lost. Their efforts allowed them to overcome the national trends that sent other Republican candidates down in defeat.

A year ago, we all were talking about the possibility that the 2008 presidential contest could pit two Virginians, Allen and Warner, against each other. (I remember scurrying to the reference books to find out the last time that had happened.) And now, neither man is a candidate for the nation’s top job.

Then there was the fundraising by the Democrats’ campaign committees this cycle, which, frankly, blew my socks off. Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee proved their fundraising mettle, with the DSCC outraising the National Republican Senatorial Committee by more than $30 million, $119 million to $88 million through Nov. 27. Wow.

Thinking back to the beginning of the year, nobody in their right mind, and certainly not the folks over at the DSCC, thought that the Democrats would have a chance to net six Senate seats and win control of the Senate. By the beginning of the year, it seemed certain that Democrats would gain seats, maybe even as many as four or five. But the sixth seat wasn’t even a dream. Waves, though, have a way of changing possibilities, since waves come about only when there is considerable voter frustration and anger.

There is one other way in which I found 2006 strange, politically. Normally, after a party sweeps to victory, its leaders (and its rank-and-file members) say their victory was a ratification of their agenda. But most Democrats have been stunningly and unexpectedly realistic about why they won. Over and over, I’ve heard Democratic elected officials comment that the elections were a referendum on the president and his policies.

“The election was largely a rejection of George Bush. Voters are giving us a chance. Our job is to close the deal,” said a Democratic leader days after the results were in. My goodness, how refreshing! Sure, Democrats have an agenda that many Republicans will disagree with, and Democratic Congressional leaders eventually may drive their bus off the cliff. But so far, Democrats are sounding unusually measured.

And of course we all have our favorite

nonpolitical surprises of 2006. Maybe for you it was the break-up of Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson or the wholly unimpressive St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series or Google spending more than $1.6 billion to buy YouTube or even Bob Barker announcing his retirement (next year) from “The Price is Right.”

For me, it was the performance of New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams hitting a surprising .281 this year and playing his 16th year with the same grace, class and dignity that he had back in the early 1990s.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 11, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.