With one Republican bastion after another falling as returns poured in for Democrats Tuesday night, the GOP's carefully constructed defenses crumbled. The party's barriers failed to prevent the election from being a referendum on Iraq, George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. It was a failure of concept as well as execution.
That failed concept relied on friendly, familiar Republican incumbents, who had delivered government pork for their district, negating intense voter hostility by using the party's time-tested machinery to get out its vote. These tactics proved useless in the face of a wave that was not so much pro-Democrat as it was anti-Republican. Only gerrymandered House districts prevented a landslide that would have given the Democrats a House majority of historic proportions, approaching 50 seats.
The apparent Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress left Republicans stunned and divided, unable to comprehend that the nation's political realignment creating a GOP majority had crested and reversed. The confidence that relied on generously funded Election Day organization now looks like mindless arrogance. The party's cocksure political mechanics simply could not believe the outcome as the results poured in.
Even up to the last minute, the Republicans never really saw overall defeat coming. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina used a golfer's language in telling me last July that his colleagues failed to appreciate how close the Republicans were to losing control of the Senate: "It's like we think we'll get by with pars on the last two holes when we really need birdies," he said then. On Wednesday, Graham told me: "Actually, we bogeyed the 17th hole and picked up on the 18th."
Republican leaders are still in denial in the wake of their crushing defeat. They blame individual losing candidates for failing to prepare themselves for the election. In contrast, the private reaction by the candidates was anger at President Bush and his political team. That includes a rising GOP undercurrent against Iraq policy. The unpleasant truth is that Republicans lost almost everywhere the president campaigned during the past week. An exception was Florida, where State Attorney General Charlie Crist kept out of Bush's way and won the election for governor.