Not every midterm election has national implications. However, the election Tuesday is shaping up, at least in part, as a referendum on President Barack Obama, his administration, his signal accomplishments — the $800 billion stimulus, the takeover of part of the auto industry, more government involvement in health care, added financial regulations – and his aspirations — a cap-and-trade "green energy" bill, "card check" to make unionization easier, more-stringent regulations on business.
The president won by a landslide in 2008, but since then he has steadily lost support, especially among self-declared independents and women. We suspect that this is because he saw the election as a mandate for sweeping change, whereas most Americans chose to hear rhetoric about a more cooperative "post-partisan" era. This is reflected in the rise of the Tea Party movement and polls that show congressional Democrats suffering significant losses of support.
Here are a few things we'll be watching for.
• Will "moderate" or "liberal" Democrats suffer the greater losses? Democrats built their 2006 and 2008 majorities in part on districts that normally lean Republican but were willing to vote for Democrats with more conservative positions on abortion and gun rights. If Republicans pick up seats (they need 39 to control the House) which Democrats will have lost them?
• What will the real effect be of the Tea Party? The movement was founded with a focus on taxing, spending and deficits and has since grappled with those who want to integrate government enforcing "traditional" morality into the mission. While Tea Partiers seem united around "No" to bigger government, they are less cohesive on what they would say "Yes" to. It is difficult to disassemble the institutions of big government that offer "free" benefits.
• Can overt Tea Party candidates win in blue states? Christine O'Donnell in Delaware has received undue publicity in a race she seems unlikely to win, as has New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. But in Pennsylvania, GOP senatorial candidate Pat Toomey was a Tea Partier before Tea Party was cool. Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Marco Rubio in Florida and Ken Buck in Colorado seem to have reasonable chances to win.
• Is divided government what works — and what Americans want? Many recall the 1990s, with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans running Congress, with some nostalgia, as the two parties prevented either from undertaking massive initiatives, and the private economy grew. We saw welfare reform, a capital-gains tax reduction, free trade initiatives and a budget surplus.
One scholar observed in a recent editorial board that when government is divided, the free market is a little more free, to the benefit of all. Divided government may neutralize the worst impulses of each party — Republicans are less apt to enact a pro-business agenda of subsidies and incentives, and Democrats are less likely to overregulate and micromanage.
We won't know for years whether the 2010 election was a real watershed, but as the day nears, it seems more significant than any midterm election in recent memory.