Last night's returns contained a few surprises, but for the most part, were only surprising to people who hadn't been paying much attention, and to those conservative commentators who had been predicting a Republican takeover of the Senate and House gains in the neighborhood of 80-100 seats. It was indeed a Republican "wave" election, but not what you'd rightly call a tsunami.
When it's all said and done (projections of outstanding votes are very favorable to Michael Bennet of CO and Patty Murray of WA), it's likely that Democrats will retain a 53-47 margin in the Senate, which means Republicans will not be in a position to tempt Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman to "flip" and give them control. Had things gone a little differently in the very close Senate races in PA or IL, the margin could have gone even higher, but Democrats aren't complaining.
It appears Republican gains in the House will wind up at around 64 or 65 seats. Looking quickly at the casualties, it appears the vast majority were either veterans in heavily Republican territory or Class of 2006-2008 "Democratic wave" members. Six wins were in southern open districts that were all but conceded months ago. There were virtually no out-of-the-blue upsets; as Nate Silver put it early this morning, it was a very "orderly wave."
But Republicans did seem to enjoy some luck at the margins. They won the national House popular vote by between 6 percent and 7 percent (which means the final Gallup generic poll, predicting a 15-point margin, was indeed an outlier, along with Rasmussen, which predicted a 12-point margin). This margin would in theory normally produce a gain of about 55 seats. The excess peformance will be attributed to superior Republican vote "efficiency," which is another way of saying that the advantage they obtained during the last round of redistricting endured to the end.
Speaking of redistricting, the worst news of the night for Democrats was in state legislative races. Republicans appear to have gained control of 15 state legislative chambers. In conjunction with gubernatorial wins, they obtained control of the redistricting process in several big states which will lose House seats (alway an opportunity for gerrymandering mischief), including Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Overall, governorships went about as expected (though several have yet to be resolved, including CT, which had a lot of polling place irregularites), with Republicans likely to control 29 or 30. If Rick Scott's lead in Florida holds up, that will be a bitter defeat fr Democrats, though the impact might be mitigated somewhat by the simultaneous passage of a initiative creating an independent redistricting commission. Democrats were hit hard in the Rust Belt, where several long-serving term-limited Democratic incumbents had become so unpopular that the entire ticket suffered (i.e., PA, MI, and WI). The national wave almost certainly extinguished several well-fought Democratic gubernatorial candidacies, including those of Ted Strickland in OH and Vincent Sheheen in SC.
Finally, something must be said about the electorate that produced these results. According to national exit polls, 2010 voters broke almost evenly in terms of their 2008 presidential votes; indeed, given the normal tendency of voters to "misremember" past ballots as being in favor of the winner, this may have been an electorate that would have made John McCain president by a significant margin. Voters under 30 dropped from 18 percent of the electorate to 11 percent; African Americans from 13 percent to 10 percent, and Hispanics from 9 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, voters over 65, the one age category carried by John McCain, increased from 16 percent of the electorate to 23 percent.
These are all normal midterm numbers. But because of the unusual alignment of voters by age and race in 2008, they produced a very different outcome, independently of any changes in public opinion. Indeed, sorting out the "structural" from the "discretionary" factors in 2008-2010 trends will be one of the most important tasks of post-election analysis, since the 2012 electorate will be much closer to that of 2008. That's also true of the factor we will hear most about in post-election talk: the "swing" of independents from favoring Obama decisively in 2008 to favoring Republicans decisively this year. Are these the same people (short answer: not as much as you'd think), or a significantly different group of voters who happened to self-identify as independents and turned out to vote?
We'll also hear far, far more than is useful about the radical changes the White House needs to make in order to put the president in position to be re-elected in 2012. An even more pertinent question is how Republicans will deal with their electoral windfall, particularly given the realities of the much less favorable electorate they will face in 2012. When given the rather limited choice of supporting, as the "highest priority" for Congress, either "cutting taxes, reducing the budget deficit, or spending to create jobs," exit polls show 18 percent wanting to cut taxes and 39 percent wanting to reduce the deficit. The newly empowered GOP, of course, is committed to both courses of action, which are incompatible without deeply unpopular spending cuts. And this fiscal problem is completely independent of the other furies unleashed by conservatives over the last two years, including a determination to deregulate corporations, turn back the clock on abortion and LGBT rights, and demonize the president (a demand of the "base" they will be in a position to indulge through their new perches in House committees).
Some analysts will make much of the defeat of several Tea Party champions yesterday, notably Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck (if Bennet's lead holds up), and perhaps, around Thanksgiving time, of Joe Miller. But put aside individuals candidates. Just as the Tea Party movement represents the radicalization of the GOP's conservative base, the Tea Party movement itself has radicalized the Republican Party beyond the point of turning back. No "grownups" are going to rescue that party from the Class of 2010 and the now-invincible belief of conservatives that they won by moving hard-right. So we may have to wait until 2012 to understand the true legacy of this election. This wave definitely has an undertow.