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November 14, 2006

Bluegrass Report: A tidal surge

It was the sort of electoral wave that Democrats hoped for last week, as Republican levees could no longer withstand the surge of voter anger. That cost them their majority status in the House, Senate, governorships and state legislative chambers in the process. When all was said and done, Democrats captured at least 29 seats in the U.S. House, with another 10 still too close to call (most political observers believe the final tally will be a 32-33 seat pickup). In the Senate, Democrats ran the tables to retake control of that chamber, dealing an enormous setback to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), who had effectively locked up what most believed was the post of Senate majority leader. Instead, that honor goes to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).Seismic political shifts were felt across the country as Democrats picked up Republican-held governor seats in New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland and Arkansas. For the first time since 1994 (a recurring theme, you’ll notice), they hold the majority of the nation’s governorships (28 seats).Perhaps more relevant to the average citizen is the shift in state legislatures, where Democrats picked up 320 more seats, adding up to new majorities in nine chambers, and now hold one-party control in 15 states (the most since 1994), including New Hampshire for the first time since 1874.More remarkable is that, for the time in history, Democrats didn’t lose even one seat in either the House, Senate or the governorships.While exit polling attributed the backlash to several reasons — from Iraq to political corruption to dissatisfaction over Republican handling of government spending and the deficit — Democratic gains came from all corners:• 59 percent of Independents voted for Democratic congressional candidates this year, compared to 52 percent in 2004 and 49 percent in 2002. • Democratic support among 18- to 29-year-olds rose from 51 percent in 2002 to 56 percent in 2004 to 61 percent this year. • Even among people who earn $100,000 a year — those best positioned for additional tax cuts under a Republican-led Congress — the share of Democratic support rose from 36 percent in 2002 to 48 percent in 2006. Regionally, both Indiana and Ohio saw enormous Democratic gains. Indiana — a state that has voted Republican in 16 of the last 17 presidential elections — sent three new Democrats to Congress and took control of the state House. In Ohio, Republicans lost a Senate seat and were swept from all statewide offices and took back the governorship for the first time in 16 years.Here in Kentucky, the national surge resembled only a few localized storms, with one big exception — the 6,000-vote victory of John Yarmuth (D) over U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (R) — and many are asking how the Kentucky Democratic Party underperformed so badly in such a fertile environment (a narrative I’ll save for another column).But Yarmuth’s victory was the product of his own hard work and determination, as neither the KDP nor national Democrats did much, if anything, for him until they thought he might actually win. Now Yarmuth joins U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) as the only members of Kentucky’s federal delegation in the majority party.Beyond that, Democrats picked up five seats in the state House but failed to eat into the Republican margin in the state Senate, and lost in their bid to knock off either Rep. Geoff Davis (R) or Rep. Ron Lewis (R).Nevertheless, Democrats are riding high nationally. Next week, they’ll elect Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the first-ever female Speaker of the House, and they’ve announced an ambitious — and popular — agenda for their first 100 hours in power when they intend to raise the minimum wage, compel drug companies to negotiate prices for Medicare recipients, approve all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, pass tough new ethics and lobbying laws, dump the ban on federal funding for research involving new lines of stem cells, and enact rules to curtail runaway government spending.And while Democrats must work hard to ensure that their large incoming freshman House class can survive an expected Republican counter-offensive in 2008, their prospects for holding the Senate looks promising, as Republicans must defend 21 of 33 seats up for election in 2008.But before then, Democrats must live up to expectations set by an angry electorate, to shift focus from that of loyal opposition to a majority party that voters this year have entrusted to clean up the mess in Washington. It’s a big job. Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org