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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: The great divide of American politics

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If Tuesday's elections proved anything, it is that the American people are deeply divided in their partisan loyalties, their views of government and their priorities when picking their political leaders.

With the Republican House majority slightly narrower now than it was on Monday, the GOP's Senate margin virtually gone and the presidential contest as close to a dead heat as possible, the American political system is either at parity or in gridlock, depending upon your point of view.

The House results are a blow to Democrats who could all but taste majority control next year. But instead of knocking off half a dozen GOP incumbents and netting another four to six open seats, the Democrats could barely scratch out any gain at all.

Much like two years ago, when just six incumbents were defeated in the general election, this year the voters tossed out another six -- four Republicans and two Democrats. And half of the incumbent defeats took place in one state, California. Two of the incumbents defeated -- Democrats Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut and David Minge of Minnesota -- were upset by long-shot challengers.

Content with the general direction of the country and the state of the economy, voters showed little desire to fire legislators who promised to get on with prescription drug coverage, a patient's bill of rights, protecting Social Security and improving education.

Incumbency, combined with strong partisan loyalties that kept competitive open seats in GOP hands in Ohio, Illinois and Florida, helped Republicans dodge a bullet.

Democrats once again failed to make "issues" the silver bullet that they have longed for. After spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads about prescription drugs, abortion and Social Security, the Democratic campaign committees and their interest group allies find themselves wondering what they have to do to make domestic policy issues into an electoral wedge against anti-government conservative Republicans.

While House Democrats had to be disappointed in their overall showing, Senate Democrats must feel conflicting emotions. On one hand, they ought to be thrilled that they gained three or four seats, all but erasing the GOP's significant advantage going into the cycle. At the same time, they must know what could have been if they had put up a stronger challenger in Pennsylvania; could have faced off against Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island without his months of incumbency; and could have recruited a decent nominee against Ohio's Mike DeWine.

Party strategists understood that retaking the Senate was a difficult task made almost impossible by the selection of Joe Lieberman to the Democratic ticket, but they came close enough to the magic number of 51 to feel a pang of disappointment that they never got over the top.

Republican strategists knew that their Senate class was full of weak spots, but they hoped -- and expected -- to keep their losses down to a couple of seats. They thought Michigan's Spencer Abraham had salvaged himself. But if 2000 proves anything, it's that a senator's fundamental weakness can't always be overcome with a good campaign.

The 2000 elections bring the beginning of a new election cycle that, if George W. Bush occupies the White House, gives the Democrats plenty of opportunities. But redistricting and retirements remain huge question marks, and if 2002 is anything like 2000, I can't wait.



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