In Congressional contests, Democrats flipped just three House seats across the whole, wide country, and they were in the traditionally blue bastions of Delaware, Hawaii, and New Orleans. They won two open Senate seats (in Delaware and Connecticut) but those have been held by Democrats for decades.
Republicans advanced everywhere except the West Coast, where they picked up just one House seat in Washington state. Their gains were mostly concentrated in the Midwest rustbelt and the upper South. With the exception of black belt regions of the South, Latino-dominated south Texas, a smattering of blue in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and a few Rocky Mountain districts, America’s vast interior is solidly red.
The West Coast (including Hawaii) and New York/New England (excepting New Hampshire) are the only remaining Democratic strongholds. The geography of defeat lends credence to GOP claims to represent the American heartland against bicoastal elites.
Republicans also won a passel of governorships and state legislatures across the Midwest. Democrats, in short, got slaughtered in working class America.
Republicans won working-class whites by a crushing, 63 to 34 percent margin. “They have taken the brunt of this recession, particularly the men, but Obama looked as if he was not engaged with it,” pollster Stan Greenberg told the National Journal. “Health care created a sense that he was not focused on the jobs issues and economic issues, and they were very angry.”
The Journal’s Ron Brownstein notes that, “In all, 47 House Democratic losses so far have come in districts in which the level of white college attainment lags the national average; just 16 came in districts that exceed that average. Talk about blue-collar blues.”
But in fact Democrats badly underperformed with white voters in general. College-educated whites also backed GOP candidates, by 58 to 40 percent. Where Democrats held onto their seats, they ran closer to even among college-educated white women while rolling up huge margins among minorities.
Nonetheless, the political map sends Democrats an unmistakable message: you are not connecting with ordinary working Americans. This is only in part a reflection of the current economic crisis, and the evident failure of President Obama’s policies to spur recovery. After all, blue collar whites have been alienated from Democrats for a generation. That should be a source of constant embarrassment to the party of the people.
Many liberal commentators, echoing Thomas Frank, have argued that blue collar voters’ antipathy to Democrats reflects their cultural conservatism. GOP demagoguery on “values” has blinded these voters to the reality that Democrats are on their side on economic issues. But the conspicuous absence of “God, guns, and gays” from the 2010 elections actually make them a pretty good test of this proposition. This time, there’s no question that blue collar voters rejected Democrats on economics rather than values.
All this underscores President Obama’s core challenge: crafting a credible plan for rebuilding America’s productive base. This isn’t a cyclical challenge; it’s not a matter of more public spending to boost demand. It’s a structural challenge which requires modernizing U.S. infrastructure, removing obstacles to entrepreneurship and innovation, seizing leadership in clean energy, and revamping tax and regulatory policies to promote economic growth.
Incredibly, however, some liberals are contemplating a blizzard of new federal regulations with the purported aim of putting Democrats on the side of the middle class by demonizing Wall Street banks and big business. The last thing blue collar Americans need is an economic morality play in which they are cast as victims. What they need, and what progressives owe them, is not a condescending populism, but a practical plan for economic success.