5 Ways the Election Changed Politics

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1. A Power Shift That Will Last a Decade

There's often too much hype surrounding midterm elections, but there's never enough hype to cover a midterm election that happens right before state legislatures throughout the country take on the task of redistricting. As the U.S. Census Bureau completes its once-in-a-decade count, state legislatures will pull out their maps at the start of 2011 and reallocate voters among congressional districts. A series of decisions by the Supreme Court, beginning with Shaw v. Reno in 1993, has limited the ability of legislatures to create districts that enable minority groups to maximize their capacity to elect candidates of their choice. At the same time, the court has essentially ensured that drawing districts to maximize political interests is virtually unfettered. 


Republican pickups in state legislatures throughout the country and in the governor's mansions in Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania means that redistricting will be firmly in the hands of the GOP-controlled redistricting committees and in the stroke of Republican governors' pens. Even now, complex computer programs in state houses throughout the country are processing raw census data and beginning to map out congressional districts by population.

Congressional elections in 2012 will take place based on the newly configured congressional districts that will be adopted by state legislatures. Thus, even if President Obama wins re-election in 2012, he may be facing an even more Republican Congress than today. Democratic and minority voters should now shift their political attention to the redistricting process. In states that are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (mostly in the Deep South, but also several boroughs of New York City), redistricting plans will have to be submitted to and pre-cleared by the Department of Justice to ensure that they do not reduce existing levels of minority voting strength. This process requires input not only from political leaders but also from community groups and local activists, who can provide on-the-ground information about the political reality in covered jurisdictions. 

2. A Return to the All-White Senate

When Rod Blagojevich, the now-convicted former governor of Illinois, decided to shank Democratic leadership in Illinois and in the White House by giving President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat to Roland Burris, many said, "Well, at least the Senate still has a black member." But from that first freak-show press conference in which Burris was introduced, it was clear that the new junior senator from Illinois, whose personally prepared memorial lists his every accomplishment, would never keep the Senate seat. President Obama's choice of Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as secretary of the interior ensured that without Burris, the Senate would revert to being a body of white millionaires. Burris decided not to run for the seat after it became clear he couldn't raise money. Now the seat has been won by Republican Mark Kirk.

As professor Terry Smith has explained in a fascinating essay, Tea Party calls for a repeal of the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of senators by the people, are a reminder that concerns about race and "states' rights" have long figured into considerations about how we elect our senators. But it's an astonishing reality that in the 21st century, the U.S. Senate remains the last bastion of all-white elected leadership.  

With Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana going Republican in both the governor's mansion and the U.S. Senate, the coalition that elected President Obama in 2008 may be a thing of the past. Obama's ability to pull voters in these key swing states — first from Hilary Clinton in the primary, and then in the general election — was one of the most exciting and extraordinary accomplishments of the Obama campaign. Aided by Gov. Rendell in Pennsylvania (an early Clinton supporter who switched to Obama in the general election), moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and even the reluctant support of former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in Indiana, Obama convinced Rust Belt voters and Latinos in Florida to support his candidacy, showing his remarkable ability to unite disparate voting blocks.


It's too soon to say if these voters will be lost to the president in 2012. There may still be a fair amount of queasiness in the electorate at the thought of giving the White House back to Republicans after the Bush disaster. But with Republicans controlling the governorships and Senate seats in these states, it's clear that President Obama will need to virtually start from scratch in swing states if he's to rebuild that coalition.

4. Tea Party Voters Are Weeding Out the Crazies

A lot has been said about the Tea Party's successes in this election. It's been estimated that more than 80 percent of Tea Party-backed candidates won election. But it's also worth noting that certain Tea Party candidates didn't win. Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle and Carl Paladino were all candidates who raised a great deal of money in their attempts to unseat strong establishment candidates in Delaware, Nevada and New York, respectively. These three collectively received more media attention than all of the Tea Party candidates running across the country. But it turns out that having to deny that you're a witch, telling Hispanic schoolchildren that they look like Asians or threatening to take out your opponents with a baseball bat is still frowned upon by most voters. 


This is good news for the Tea Party movement. As opportunistic crackpots running as Tea Party candidates are rejected by voters, the Tea Party will hasten its inevitable transition into a more predictable libertarian block of the Republican Party, wielding real and powerful influence on the GOP establishment. This should serve as a wake-up call to Sarah Palin, who has hewed closer to the crackpot wing of the Tea Party. If she's serious about running for president in 2012 (and it's unlikely she is — why work that hard when you can make lots of money and wield political influence without having a real job?), then she'll need to clean up her act. Putting crosshairs on Democratic-controlled districts on your website and encouraging Dr. Laura not to retreat but to "reload" after the radio provocateur used the n-word repeatedly is the kind of conduct that Palin may discover is going out of vogue among voters who are otherwise supportive of Tea Party aims.

5. The Next Move Is Up to the Republicans

Without question, this election is a sobering one for President Obama, just as the 1994 midterm election was for President Clinton. It's worth remembering that it was after 1994 that Clinton supported some of the most corrosive and shameful pieces of legislation of his presidency. The welfare-reform bill and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, enacted in 1996, introduced policies that continue to resound negatively in the lives of African Americans, the poor and criminal defendants. 


But judging by the stammering responses of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the fear I think I saw in the eyes of the putative new speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio), in the first 24 hours after this election, it's clear that Republicans in the House have no real plan to do anything constructive. Their agenda is one of "undoing": undoing health care, undoing what they call "Obama's policies."

But as has been said over and over, "It's the economy, stupid." The American public wants jobs and a stable economy. Keeping this country moving forward and providing jobs requires that our elected leaders actually do something. The most important poll number of this is election is 60 percent. That's the percentage of Americans just one month ago who disapproved of the Republican leadership. It's safe to say that this number hasn't moved much in the last month. That means that the Republicans are skating on thin ice. They've been given a chance — a two-year window — to make things better. It's not clear that the party of "Hell, no!" has anything to offer Americans who want solutions to our country's problems.


Sherrilyn Ifill, who teaches law at the University of Maryland, is a frequent contributor to The Root.