The first thing conservatives should understand about the electoral catastrophe that just befell us — and it was a catastrophe — is that any explanation of it that centers on Mitt Romney is mistaken.
Much of the discussion of the race among conservatives has made the opposite assumption. “Romney proved to be the kind of electoral drag many of us suspected he would always be,” wrote one conservative the morning after the election. “It was a flawed candidacy from the start,” wrote two others. “Romney’s caution and ever-shifting policy positions made him seem fearful, which is to say weak. His biography hurt him. . . . And because of his own history in Massachusetts, he could never effectively go after President Obama on Obamacare, the president’s biggest political weakness.” Another called Romney “the worst candidate to win his party’s nomination since WWII.” Still another wrote, “There will be a lot of blame to go around, but, if Republicans are honest, they’ll have to concede that the Romney campaign ran a bad campaign.”
All of these writers are intelligent people (some of them friends of mine). None of them makes the mistake of assuming that this election should have been easy to win given the weak economy, the public’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the unpopularity of Obamacare. They know that the economy has been improving, that the Democratic base in presidential races has been expanding for decades, and that the public still blames George W. Bush and his party for an economic crisis that began during his second term. Nor are they entirely wrong in their diagnoses of Romney’s distinctive weaknesses and errors. They err mainly in attributing too much importance to them.
Romney was not a drag on the Republican party. The Republican party was a drag on him. Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In some cases Romney did a lot better. (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)
None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did. It didn’t help them win more votes. The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.
Akin and Mourdock have received a lot of attention because they fit into the story of the Senate elections of 2010. Most observers believe that Republican-primary voters threw away three Senate seats that year by choosing unelectable extremists over candidates who could have won. This year, Akin and Mourdock each made comments about abortion and rape that doomed them. If not for these five mistakes in candidate selection, Republicans would have 50 seats. So goes the story.
It’s an accurate one as far as it goes. But it is not the story of the 2012 Senate races. Berg, Allen, Thompson, and Rehberg all lost, but they were not unelectable extremists: All of them had won statewide races before. We could try to explain these defeats in terms of each candidate’s particular weaknesses. Blake, the Post reporter, hints at such an explanation: “It’s pretty clear that lackluster candidates cost Republicans multiple Senate seats on Election Day.” No. That’s the 2010 story. The 2012 Senate races were more like the ones in 2006 and 2008: wipeouts for Republicans of every description — veterans and newcomers, conservative purists and relative moderates alike.
All these candidates lost not because of the idiosyncrasies of this or that candidate or the flaws of this or that faction of the Republican party. They lost not because of the particular vices of the Tea Party, or of social conservatives, or of the party establishment. The most logical explanation for the pattern is that something common to all Republicans brought them down, and the simplest explanation is that their party is weak — and has been for a long time. Consider the evidence: Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Since the Senate reached its current size, Democrats have had more than 55 seats 13 times; Republicans, never.
Before settling on this story of party weakness, we need to examine three apparent pieces of evidence of strength. The first is that Republicans retained control of the House even as they lost the presidential and Senate races. Republicans are likely to have their second-largest House majority in 60 years. They appear, however, to have narrowly lost the popular vote for the House. One reason they won so many seats anyway is that 2010 was an unusually good Republican year, and Republicans were therefore able to draw the lines of congressional districts following that year’s census. What the House success demonstrates, in part, is that Republicans can do well when they choose the voters rather than vice versa. Another reason for the House success, as Michael Barone has observed, is that the geographic distribution of Republican voters within states tends to favor them. That’s not much help, though, in amassing a national majority from statewide races.
The second piece of evidence for Republican political strength is that they hold 30 of the 50 governorships. That strength, too, is misleading. Each of those Republican governors was elected either in a state Romney carried or in the unusually Republican years of 2009 and 2010 — or, in most cases, both.