Republicans' Election Night wave: It was big

Published November 6 2014
Updated November 7 2014

Most political analysts expected that Election Night 2014 wouldn't be a happy one for the Democrats. But the scope of the carnage was still something of a surprise.

Not only did the Democrats lose their majority in the U.S. Senate and fall further behind in the U.S. House, but they also performed miserably in the closest gubernatorial races.

Before the election, we offered 10 yardsticks to use when judging the scale of the Republican wave. Now that the ballot-counting is (mostly) finished, we can see what these metrics show.

We chose these factors based on two assumptions — that a wave can be stronger or weaker depending on the type of race being contested; and that the true strength of a wave is measured less by victories in places where the surging party is already strong, and more by victories in states that are either competitive or actually lean toward the opposing party.

After settling on 10 key questions, we set a baseline for what was "expected" — based on the latest analysis by electoral handicappers — and established a sliding scale that awarded more credit to a party for exceeding the conventional wisdom once the results were in. Let's go to the scoreboard:

1. How many reasonably competitive Senate seats does the GOP win in states won by President Barack Obama in 2012?

The GOP won races in Colorado and Iowa, and lost races in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, New Hampshire and Virginia (though the losses in New Hampshire and Virginia were narrow). We had pegged two wins as a "strong night for Republicans."

2. By how many cumulative percentage points do GOP Senate candidates in competitive races exceed Mitt Romney's 2012 percentage in that state?

This measurement was designed to capture the reality that the GOP had a relatively friendly mix of states hosting competitive Senate races this year. Going into Election Day, we expected that GOP Senate candidates wouldn't be able to match Romney's 2012 percentages. We were right: While Democratic incumbents largely lost their seats, they still managed to outperform what Obama notched in their states.

Republicans ended up outpacing Romney in three states won by Obama in 2012: Colorado (2 points better than Romney), Iowa (5 points better) and New Hampshire (1 point better).

But Republicans underperformed Romney in Alaska (by 6 points), Arkansas (4 points), Kentucky (5 points), Louisiana (2 points), Michigan (4 points) and North Carolina (2 points).

In Georgia, the GOP Senate candidate equaled Romney's vote percentage. (This list excluded the three-way Kansas and South Dakota races; for Louisiana, we counted the total of all Republicans on the November ballot.)

All told, GOP Senate candidates underperformed Romney by 15 percentage points. Still, given the range of possible outcomes going in, that qualified as a strong night for Republicans.

3. How many incumbent House Democrats lose?

The numbers for this question could shift because of late calls and recounts, but the Democrats lost at least 10 House seats. On our scale that's a "pretty strong night for Republicans."

4. Do more Democratic incumbent governors lose than Republican incumbent governors?

Democrats knocked off one Republican incumbent (Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett), while Republicans knocked off one Democratic incumbent (Illinois' Pat Quinn). Alaska's incumbent Republican governor is currently trailing, but the race hasn't been called. For the races that are settled as of this writing, it's a wash.

5. How many Republican governors are poised to take office in 2015, compared to the GOP's current 29?

More impressive than the GOP's record in defeating opposition governors was the party's ability to salvage its vulnerable incumbents. Of the 12 races deemed tossups on the eve of the election — a group thick with endangered Republican incumbents — the GOP won 10 races and lost one, or two if Alaska falls away from the GOP. (The challengers in Alaska are a fusion ticket between an Independent and a Democratic running mate.)

In all, the GOP should end up with either 32 or 31 seats. Either of these results falls into the category we defined as a strong Republican night.

6. In how many states does the GOP win both a competitive Senate race and competitive gubernatorial race?

The competitive Senate and gubernatorial races didn't all fall the same way. The GOP won both contests in Arkansas and Georgia but lost a Senate race in Michigan, a gubernatorial race in Colorado, and both races in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon. (We didn't include the Alaska gubernatorial race or Kansas' three-way Senate race.)

Winning a pair of these two-fers qualifies as a strong night for Republicans.

7. How large is the net partisan shift in the control of state legislative chambers?

Legislative chamber control sometimes takes a while to sort out, but as of this writing, the GOP has taken over at least nine chambers and could seize one more. By our method, this qualifies at least as a "very strong Republican night."

8. How large is the net partisan shift in the control of state attorneys general seats?

The GOP flipped two Democrat-held seats, in Arkansas and Nevada. By our yardstick, that qualifies as a strong Republican night.

9. How many ballot measures do voters reject on the minimum wage (Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota) and on marijuana (Alaska, Oregon and Florida), and how many do they pass restricting abortion (Colorado, North Dakota and Tennessee)?

Ballot initiatives were a rare bright spot for the Democrats. All five states with a minimum wage increase on the ballot — including four solidly Republican states — voted yes. This is a policy advocated by Obama and largely opposed by congressional Republicans.

Two out of the three states with marijuana measures on the ballot approved them. Alaska and Oregon voted to approve recreational use (as did the District of Columbia), while Florida rejected a medical-marijuana measure.

Voters in Colorado and in solidly Republican North Dakota rejected two tough antiabortion measures, though voters in Tennessee approved a measure that could lead to tighter restrictions. (Apologies for missing the Tennessee measure in our original report.)

So conservatives "won" only two of these 11 measures. That rates as a "medium night for Republicans."

10. How many more Republican-leaning candidates win, compared to Democratic-leaning candidates, in contested judicial races in North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, New Mexico and Montana?

The Democrats also had better-than-average results in judicial races. In a series of hotly contested North Carolina contests, two Democratic-leaning judges prevailed, one Democrat was leading in a very close race and one Republican was re-elected. In Montana, a Democratic-aligned candidate defeated a Republican-aligned candidate, while in Michigan, Republicans won two races but a Democrat won one.

The GOP did better in New Mexico and Ohio, where Republican-aligned candidates defeated Democratic-aligned candidates. On balance, the GOP ended up with one or two more judicial seats than the Democrats did in these races, qualifying in our system as a "weak night for Republicans."

Putting it all together, Republicans and conservatives had a "strong" or "very strong" night in six of our 10 categories. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise: This wave was real.

Contact Louis Jacobson at [email protected] Follow @loujacobson.

Also In This Section