The 2009-2010 cycle has produced the kind of facts on the ground that Republicans could only dream about. Thanks go to Obama and congressional Democrats. The political environment created by their unpopular policies has produced what Republicans couldn’t on their own—a united party. ~Fred Barnes

Unfortunately for the GOP, some of them are still dreaming. It is a fantasy to believe that the political environment was created by “unpopular policies.” It is almost entirely the result of economic weakness and economic anxiety. It is absolutely a fantasy to imagine that the reaction to Democratic policies has been driven by a straightforward rejection of “out-of-control-spending,” as Barnes claims later in the article. Aside from high unemployment, the most important factor in explaining Democratic weakness is that they have lost significant support among elderly voters. This probably would have happened at a time with much lower unemployment, but they have not lost this support because of “out-of-control-spending.” On the contrary, the reason so many elderly voters have turned against them is to express their anger at proposed cuts to Medicare. That doesn’t fit in very well with the argument that “out-of-control spending” has been the catalyst when the single-largest shift among voters came from a backlash against proposed spending cuts. Barnes writes that the “heart of the comeback in 2010 is the Rust Belt,” but he shows no awareness that this is driven almost entirely by the reaction to the more severely depressed economies across the Midwest and Pennsylvania.

At this point, it appears that Republicans will gain 35 seats. If all of the toss-ups broke for the Republicans, they could realistically gain 41, which would be just enough, but all of them are not going to break their way. The most certain pick-ups are pretty well-known, but I’ll list them here: LA-03, TN-06, KS-03, AR-02, CO-04, FL-24, IL-11, IN-08, MD-01, OH-01, OH-15, TX-17, TN-08, VA-02, PA-03, NH-01, PA-11, VA-05, FL-08, NY-29, and AZ-01. The likely pick-ups include: NM-02, M1-01, IN-09, IL-14, FL-02, PA-07, IL-17, PA-08, WI-07, OH-16, WA-03, and WI-08. The least certain pick-ups are AR-01, ND-AL, OH-18, MI-07, NH-02, NV-03, and SC-05, but I am still assuming Republicans win these. Democratic pick-ups will include the three everyone expects in LA-02, DE-AL and IL-10, and will most likely include Hawaii’s First District and Florida’s 25th.

If that’s right and Republicans come up five seats short of a majority, all this talk of “miraculous comebacks” will seem rather silly. Obviously, people pushing the “1994-but-bigger” argument will have some explaining to do. Gaining 35 seats in the House is impressive, and it will be the second-largest turnover in my lifetime, but after the overhyping of Republican chances for the last year it will seem anticlimactic and unsatisfying. The reality that gaining 35 won’t be enough to win a majority serves as a reminder just how far down the GOP had sunk in the last four years, which should remind us that the GOP deserved to be so far down. It should also make us realize the gains the GOP makes this year are largely unmerited. Right now, everyone in the “biggest tent” is working together and setting aside disagreements for the sake of winning the election. What happens if Republicans don’t win? The round of post-election recriminations will be that much more severe and bitter when it becomes clear that the party failed to take advantage of one of the most favorable election years in decades.

If Republicans do manage to eke out a House majority, the electorate won’t have provided them with even the illusion of a mandate, and their leaders have already made clear they have no desire for fiscal responsibility. Riding an entirely negative electoral wave created by a weak economy, Republicans will see that they have not have been elected for any particular reason. They will devolve into their usual time-serving habits even faster than before. It will probably be a very bad outcome for the Republicans to return from the political wilderness before they have learned something from the public’s rejection of them in the past.