Republicans are beside themselves celebrating their election victories, and there were many, taking over the U.S. Senate, expanding their margin in the U.S. House and winning more governorships than they were projected to capture.
In North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis rode the national wave and defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, and the GOP held its supermajorities in the state House and Senate. It was a Republican night indeed.
But folks in the state claiming the results were a triumphant affirmation of the Republican agenda of the last four years need to take a breath.
Despite the closely fought U.S. Senate race and polls showing Hagan with a slight lead for most of the fall, she had long been considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. It turned out she was.
As one pollster observed a few weeks ago, the only reason the race was close at all was because of the unpopularity of the General Assembly that Tillis led for the last four years.
But history is a powerful predictor. The average loss of the party of a president in his sixth year in office is six seats in the U.S. Senate, about what the Republicans gained.
It may seem odd when you consider that the national unemployment rate is below 6 percent, gas is now less than $3 a gallon, corporate profits are higher as a percentage of the national economy than they have been since 1965 and the stock market is at an all-time high.
Not to mention that the percentage of people without health insurance has fallen significantly – yes thanks to the much-demagogued Affordable Care Act.
But people are uneasy, worried about the stability of their jobs, how to pay for college tuition and the threats from everything from ISIS to Ebola. It doesn’t matter in politics if the threats are real; it matters if people are anxious or afraid, and many people clearly are and they are looking for someone to blame.
An administration that has been running things for six years is the mostly likely scapegoat, a sentiment encouraged by the hundreds of millions of dollars of outside money poured into races across the country and in North Carolina.
Big special interest money also played a role in limiting Republican losses in state legislative races. GOP Sen. Chad Barefoot won re-election in a closely fought battle with Democratic challenger Sarah Crawford after the N.C. Republican Party dumped $200,000 more into the race just a few days before the election, a staggering amount that equals what used to be spent on an entire legislative campaign just a few years ago.
It’s also not an accident that the other disappointments in state legislative races for Democrats came in districts where there was no Republican incumbent forced to defend a polarizing legislative record.
In one of the closest state Senate races, Republican John Alexander narrowly defeated Democrat Tom Bradshaw in Wake County in a contest for an open seat in which Alexander constantly reminded voters that his wife is a Democrat and would keep him from straying too far right.
And it’s also worth remembering that Republicans were supposed to win most of the state legislative races. They drew the gerrymandered districts for the General Assembly and Congress just three years ago.
That’s the only way to explain how Republicans now control 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House in a state that is almost evenly divided politically.
If there’s any bright spot in the predictably dismal election for Democrats, it’s that they gained a handful of seats in the state House, including two in Buncombe County, one of them by defeating controversial Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican who had talked of running for House speaker in 2015.
Democrats also won the three seats on the N.C. Supreme Court in which they fielded a candidate, though one of those may wind up in a recount.
That probably feels like small consolation in a year when Republicans are celebrating a new U.S. senator to go with their control of all three branches of state government.
This was clearly a Republican election, and they won in many places by softening their hard-right positions during the campaign.
Now let’s see how they govern for the next two years.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, from which this column is reprinted.