Is all this just a response to a sputtering economy? Political scientist Alan Abramowitz, on a panel with Sabato and me at the American Political Science Association conference last weekend, said he thought so. I disagreed.
I think what we're seeing is a rejection of the Obama Democrats' big-government policies. The president and his party thought that in times of economic distress most voters would be supportive of or at least amenable to a vast expansion of the size and scope of government.
They jammed the Senate version of their health care bill through the House in March, in the face of the clear opposition signaled by the voters of Massachusetts as well as every public opinion poll. I can't think of a more unpopular major measure passed by Congress since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Back then the Democrats also had supermajorities in both houses of Congress and a young, previously little-known president who had defeated an aging war hero by a decisive margin. They realized that the Kansas-Nebraska Act promoting slavery in the territories would raise some hackles, but expressed confidence that voters would accept it when it was properly explained to them.
They didn't. Voters reduced the number of Democratic House members from 159 to 83, nearly eliminating the party in much of the North. Democrats didn't win a House majority for the next 20 years.
Today House Democrats have more money than their opponents and, unlike 1994, they've known for months that they might be in peril. They know that Republicans remain unpopular and hoped their own numbers would improve. But instead they're plunging to historic depths. Time for triage.