Democratic Survivors' Scenarios Could Help Both Parties in 2012

Republicans held on to four out of seven seats in 2010 competitive races.

Nov. 7, 2010— -- Republicans are celebrating their most successful election in more than six decades, but that doesn't mean Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop is walking around with a long face.

Bishop, who represents a conservative-leaning district on New York's Long Island, managed to keep his seat in the House of Representatives despite a Republican tsunami Tuesday that wiped away five dozen of his most vulnerable Democratic colleagues and swept the GOP into power for the first time in four years.

"We knew it was a Category 5 hurricane coming," said Bishop, who won a fifth term with 51 percent of the vote. "We built an infrastructure to withstand it."

In an election that forced most Democrats in competitive districts to pack up their Capitol Hill offices, 29 managed to hang on -- and that number could change as contested outcomes are decided.

Republicans, meanwhile, held on to four out of seven seats in competitive races. Figuring out why some vulnerable Democrats won while others lost could help leaders of both parties as they prepare for the 2012 election.

Among the survivors: first-term Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell in North Carolina, who withstood millions of dollars in special interest attack ads to fend off Republican Harold Johnson. In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley beat Republican attorney Ben Lange despite being in a race that tightened in the waning days.

Democrats also held on to seats in a handful of suburban districts -- territory campaigns often court during presidential election years -- such as Rep. Jason Altmire, who beat back a challenge in his district north of Pittsburgh, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who kept her district outside Tucson.

During the campaign, Republican Keith Rothfus attacked Altmire for faithfully supporting the Democratic agenda. But Altmire said the message didn't stick, partly because he voted against President Obama's health care law.

"My race was a lot closer than I thought it was going to be," he said. "If I had made a couple of votes differently, then certainly the attacks would have resonated more clearly."

Democrats performed better than expected in several competitive races in New England as well, including the Massachusetts district that covers Cape Cod, and a Connecticut district home to Stamford. Powerful Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., whom the non-partisan Cook Political Report considered in a competitive race, cruised to victory.

In New York, Democrats lost five House seats and a sixth race is too close to call. But nine-term Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey won his Hudson Valley seat easily. Hinchey acknowledged that it's "hard to know" why some vulnerable members lost while others pulled through.

Far fewer Republicans faced stiff challenges Tuesday night. The GOP managed to retain four out of seven races considered to be competitive by The Cook Political Report.

David Wasserman, who follows House races for The Cook Political Report, said many vulnerable Democrats who won defined their GOP opponents as being "elitist" or as "insiders."

In Oregon, Rep. Kurt Schrader attacked Republican Scott Bruun in campaign ads for being a commercial banker. In Upstate New York, Rep. Bill Owens repeatedly went after his opponent's past job on Wall Street.

"If you were a corporate higher-up who shipped jobs overseas or were generally related to the financial crisis, you didn't do as well as an average Republican," Wasserman said. "It didn't pay to be a credit-card executive."