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GOP Train Wreck Could Have Been Worse

If Republicans are searching — Reagan-style — for the pony in the pile of manure, perhaps they can find it in this: The double-whammy wipeout many of them were expecting didn’t materialize on Election Night.
Yes, Barack Obama crushed John McCain in the presidential race. But Democrats seem destined to fall well short of the filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority they wanted in the Senate, and Republicans have won a slew of House races they were braced to lose. 

While never quite predicting it, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chief Charles Schumer of New York said late last month that 60 was “possible.” In the House, Democratic operatives and leadership types had their hopes set on a 30-seat pickup and thought they might get to 40 if everything broke their way.

It didn’t.

The Senate road to 60 was supposed to run through Alaska, but the morning after found Republican Sen. Ted Stevens holding onto a slim lead over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich — despite the fact that Stevens was convicted last week on seven federal felony counts.

Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman worried that his vote on the $700 billion bailout would cost him the election, but it hasn’t, yet; he claimed victory over Al Franken, but the margin was so small that a recount is mandated under state law. In Oregon, Gordon Smith — the quintessential endangered moderate Republican — may yet lose his seat, but he’s leading at the moment. Roger Wicker dodged the wave in Mississippi; Saxby Chambliss looks like a survivor in Georgia; and Mitch McConnell is not Tom Daschle.

On the House side, Alaska Rep. Don Young — left for dead by just about everyone, including his governor, Sarah Palin — somehow managed to win reelection. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) saw roughly a million dollars pour into her opponent’s campaign after she went McCarthy on Chris Matthews and urged the news media to investigate whether members of Congress were “pro-American”; she won anyway. Seemingly vulnerable Republican Reps. Lee Terry of Nebraska, John Shadegg of Arizona and Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida all won new terms in Congress.

Sweeter still: Louisiana Democrat Don Cazayoux, whose special election victory in May set off the GOP’s summer of discontent, lost Tuesday night to Republican Bill Cassidy.

Republicans took back a handful of other seats they always considered theirs. They beat Democratic Reps. Nick Lampson of Texas, who took Tom DeLay’s old seat in 2006, Nancy Boyda, who rode the 2006 wave in Kansas, and Tim Mahoney, who took over for scandal-tarred Mark Foley in Florida only to see his own campaign crumble under the admission of affairs.

And Republicans held off Democrats running for open seats in New York, Ohio and Minnesota. 

Some districts have yet to be called, and several more Republican losses may soon be confirmed. The GOP could lose additional seats in Maryland, where Democrat Frank Kratovil is favored to take retiring Rep. Wayne Gilchrest’s seat, Virginia, where Rep. Virgil Goode looks to be headed for a surprise defeat, and Idaho, where incumbent Rep. Bill Sali trails challenger Walt Minnick with nearly all precincts reporting.

There is also a competitive runoff election in Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District, where Democrats are fighting to take the seat of former GOP Rep. Jim McCrery, who resigned in the middle of the 110th Congress to enter the private sector.

Still, even in a worst-case scenario — one in which Republicans go down in all those undecided races — the GOP’s net loss would total only 22 seats — a damaging setback, but not the bloodbath they feared and some Democrats anticipated.

As the results came in Tuesday night, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it looked like his team woud come through “a little bit better than some people might have expected.”

While retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and anything-but-retiring Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) suggested Tuesday that their party was lost and in need of a dramatic new direction, the election results — at least in the House — indicate that Republicans suffered as much from Obama’s popularity as they did from their own woes. It’s unlikely that Democrats could have beaten Thelma Drake in Virginia or Steve Chabot in Ohio or taken two Alabama House seats without a huge surge in black turnout.

Republicans cannot so easily explain away Marilyn Musgrave’s loss in Colorado and Christopher Shays’ defeat in Connecticut. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can’t be unhappy as she surveys what’s shaping up to be the most commanding Democratic majority in a generation.

But as NRCC staffers returned to work Wednesday morning, many of them were breathing sighs of relief. A 20- or 22-seat loss is hardly a victory, but it’s not the sea-changing — and majority-robbing — 30-seat loss the Republicans suffered two years ago. Just a week ago, the NRCC staffers were braced for worse. But they say they saw the Democrats’ wave crest just a little too early — and that it was starting to recede as voters went to the polls.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) — whose future might have been in doubt if losses had piled higher — announced Wednesday morning that he’s running for another term atop his party. And the NRCC’s Cole — who could have been thrown under the bus at any number of points this year — will now make a play to stay on for 2010.

Josh Kraushaar, Alexander Burns and Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.

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