This wasn't just a bad night for Democrats. This was a downright drubbing.
So, what happened?
All Politics Is National: Democrats believed they could help isolate and insulate their vulnerable Democrats from an unpopular president by making each contest about the individual candidates. Democrats hoped that the tainted GOP brand combined with incumbent candidates with solid political pedigrees who "knew their states" could prevail over the country's pessimistic mood. It didn't work.
Elections Are Always a Referendum on the President: Yes, we have three branches of government. But, most American voters only know one of them. And, how they feel about the Executive branch drives their vote. Period. And, when the President's approval rating is sitting at 42 percent (or less in many of these states), the party of the president loses.
The Obama Coalition Does Not Work At The Congressional Level: The national House exit poll found an electorate that was older, whiter, and wealthier than those who turned out to vote in 2012. Even in states where Democrats put a serious effort to change the composite of the electorate, those efforts came up short. In North Carolina, for example, African-American turn-out was down two points from 2012, while white turn-out was up four points. The electorate in the Tar Heel state was also three points less Democratic and two points more Republican than 2012. The fact is, the Obama/Pelosi Democratic Party goes over fine with certain voters--young, sophisticated, urban/suburban, college-educated--but it just isn't working with rural and small-town, working class whites.
It's the Economy, Stupid: While empirical evidence suggests that the economy has improved markedly since 2012 (just look at the drop in the unemployment rate), voters don't buy it/feel it/believe it. More important, voters making less than $50,000/year (a key component of the Obama coalition) didn't turn out this year. In 2012, 41 percent of the electorate was made up of people who made less than $50,000/year (and Obama carried those voters by 22 points). This year, just 36 percent of the electorate made less than $50,000/year and Democrats carried them by 13 points.
"You Can't Win on Turn-out If You Are Losing on Message:" This was a prescient quote made to me from a GOP pollster earlier this fall. Ultimately, Democrats just didn't/couldn't convince even their own voters that their vote mattered. Democrats we talked to throughout the year were frustrated that the White House and national Democrats were not able to effectively make the case for a Democratic agenda. Nor were they able to make the economic contrast with Republicans as effectively as Obama was able to do with Romney in 2012. Perhaps no state typifies the "losing on message" narrative like Colorado's Senate race where exit polls found that Republican Cory Gardner carried the "middle class" (those making between $50,000-$100,000/yr) by 13 points. In 2012, Obama carried these voters by 22 points.
Candidates Matter: Give credit to the NRSC and the GOP outside groups who helped support the more electable candidate in competitive primary contests. Moreover, give credit to those GOP candidates for not giving Democrats any sort of unforced error or debate flub to use against them.
The War on Women and War on Rich Guys Fell Flat: In Colorado, where Mark Udall spent most of his time talking about Republican Cory Gardner's views on contraception, just 48 percent of the electorate was female (a drop of three points from 2012). Moreover, Udall's performance among women voters was four points worse than Michael Bennet's showing among female voters in 2010 (52 percent to 56 percent). In Illinois, Connecticut, and Florida gubernatorial races, and the Georgia Senate contest, the Democrat tried to "Romney" the GOP candidate by attacking that candidate's wealth and business practices as beneficial to those in the one percent. As of early this morning, only Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy looks to have prevailed.
Despite All the Bad News for Democrats Tonight, Midterms Are Rarely Predictive of Presidential Year Outcomes: Republicans swept into power in 1994, only to see Bob Dole get crushed by President Clinton in 1996. Democrats had a great night in 1998, but lost the White House two years later. Two years after a drubbing at the polls in 2010, President Obama won re-election handily.