Read Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s job was tough enough already. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he was responsible for coordinating House races across the country during an inevitably bad election year. At about 9 p.m. Tuesday, his job got worse. At DNC headquarters on Capitol Hill, Van Hollen came downstairs to speak with a gaggle of reporters. His message was one of cautious optimism: “People understood the high stakes in this election, and we remain confident we’re going to have a strong showing and keep the majority.”
After a brief back-and-forth, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell cut in: “Congressman, we just called the House for the Republicans.” A pained smile. “Well, I think that’s a mistake,” he said. Ten minutes later, all three networks made the same call.
Tuesday night tested the Democratic spin machine like never before. Even as the losses piled up, party officials stuck to their message: That the American people don’t want to go back to the same old Republican policies.
How do massive Democratic losses in the House somehow add up to a rejection of Republicans? As DNC Chairman Tim Kaine explained, a GOP takeover of the House may be “a message from the American public.” But it’s not a rebuke of Democratic policies, he suggested. It’s a message about the need for bipartisan cooperation—that “everybody’s gotta work together.” A vote for Republicans is thus a vote against Republican obstructionism. Or something.
Democrats also argued that the losses aren’t as bad as they were expecting. One strategist pointed to the victories of Reps. Heath Shuler in North Carolina, John Carney in Delaware, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana, the last of whom voted for health care reform, as evidence that calamity has been avoided. Dems also kept an eye out for cruel twists of fate, such as Republicans’ loss of the Delaware House district Republican Rep. Mike Castle vacated in order to run for a Senate seat the Republicans also lost. Another bright spot: Democrats may be losing governorships north and south, but they appear to be holding onto key seats like Massachusetts and Maryland. And compared with 2006, they say, Democratic turnout is way up. Of course, that’s to be expected after the wave of new Democratic voters in 2008.
Of all the silver linings, perhaps the shiniest is that they’ll hold onto the Senate. Few people ever seriously suggested they would lose the Senate. (Many asked the question.) But it’s a relief nonetheless.
Relentless optimism can lead to cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, Democrats emphasized that they got the message. On the other, they seemed unclear on what the message was. “We’re going to be listening closely,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told a packed room at the Liaison Hotel earlier in the evening. “And we’re gonna be expecting the American people to say we want to move this country forward.”
In other words: We’re listening. But we know what we’re going to hear.
Democrats wanted Americans to listen to them, too. The core message of Nancy Pelosi’s early evening address: It’s not too late to vote! “Across the country, the polls are still open,” she said. The fact that media organizations began calling the House for Republicans before all polls had closed irked Democrats. But in the world of spin, asking the media not to report the news might be one rotation too far.