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First Thoughts: How we got here

It's Election Day… How we got to the point where everyone is expecting a big GOP night: Unemployment is near 10%... Dems won health care but lost the middle in the process… The Tea Party gave the GOP the enthusiasm edge (and a way to re-brand the party after Bush)… And Democrats were unable to fundamentally change how Washington works… Despite it all, the White House and the Dem-controlled Congress accomplished A LOT… The new kids on the block… Dems desperately in search of a silver lining… A primer on tonight's battle for control… Why 2012 might not look like 2010… And other fingertip facts.

*** How we got here: We've come a long way since that Grant Park celebration in Chicago two years ago. The inauguration. Passage of the stimulus. Specter's switch and Franken's swearing-in (giving Dems 60 votes in the Senate). The summer town halls of '09. Sotomayor. "You lie." GOP victories in New Jersey and Virginia. Health care clears the House and Senate. Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. Obama signing the health bills into law. The BP spill. The Greece riots and the Dow's nearly 1,000-point plunge (before partially recovering). The Tea Party's defeat of Bob Bennett in Utah. Kagan. Lisa Murkowski's loss in Alaska (and then her write-in bid). And Christine O'Donnell's upset of Mike Castle in Delaware. After all of this, Republicans today are on the verge of retaking at least one chamber of Congress and picking up numerous governorships across the country. So how did we get to this point where we're on the cusp of a third-straight change election?

*** It's the economy, stupid: Well, we have to start with the economy. Although the country technically is no longer in a recession, and although no one is discussing a double dip right now, the unemployment rate stands at 9.6% (compared with 5.8% in Oct. '94 and 4.4% in Oct. '06). What's more, our new NBC/WSJ poll finds that a whopping 84% are either "somewhat" dissatisfied or "very" dissatisfied with the economy. Per most economists and studies, the stimulus Democrats passed DID work to prevent a possible depression and even more unemployment. But with unemployment hovering around 10% for nearly two years now, the American public hasn't judged it as a success (with 35% saying it was a good idea and 45% a bad idea in our mid-October NBC/WSJ poll).

*** Winning health care but losing the center: The debate over health-care also played an important role in shaping this midterm environment. While possibly the greatest legislative achievement since the Great Society, it hasn't been a political success -- at least in the short term -- with 36% believing it was a good idea and 46% saying it was a bad idea in our mid-October poll. The health law also mobilized the Tea Party and conservative Republicans. (As one Republican put it to us earlier this week, health care gave the Republicans a real-world "scope of government" debate talking point.) And the debate's biggest casualty for Obama and the Democrats: the middle of the country. Per our most recent poll, the president's approval among independents sits at just 32%. And indies prefer a GOP-controlled Congress by a 45%-21% margin.

*** The Tea Party flexes its muscles: You can't explain today's midterm elections without also mentioning the Tea Party and the jolt of energy and enthusiasm -- and the re-branding (away from Bush) -- it gave the Republican Party. According to our poll, 28% of all registered voters identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, but these folks make up 32% of likely voters and 35% of the most-interested voters -- which means they will make up a disproportionate share of today's electorate. However, the Tea Party also has been a double-edged sword for the GOP; if Sharron Angle and Joe Miller lose, or if Republicans pick up nine Senate seats (but not 10 because they lose in Delaware), the Tea Party will be to blame.

*** Same as it ever was? Our final how-we-got-here point is the Democrats' inability to change Washington, at least in the minds of the electorate. Yes, the Obama White House has been more transparent than its predecessors and has implemented rules to discourage the revolving door between public service and lobbying. And, yes, the Democratic-controlled Congress implemented unprecedented rules to police ethical violations. But the partisanship -- as well as all the deals Democrats cut to pass legislation over the last two years -- has made the public believe that Washington hasn't changed under Democratic rule. In our August NBC/WSJ poll, 65% said that Obama had fallen short of their expectations to change Washington.

*** The Do-Something Congress: Despite everything we wrote above, we'd be remiss to ignore how much Democrats (in control of the White House and Congress) actually achieved in the past two years. The stimulus. Health care. Financial reform. Two SCOTUS justices. You can't say this was a do-nothing Congress. As others have mentioned, political power comes and goes (as we've seen over the past few years). What matters is what you do with it…

*** New kids on the block: Get this: After tonight, we will see 17 to 21 new senators, meaning at least 40 out of the 100 members will be first-term senators after tonight. We're going to see as many as 30 new governors. And we'll probably get 80 to 100 new members of Congress. This is truly the big-picture story no one is talking about -- how we're set for the biggest year of political transition in recent memory.

*** Desperately seeking a silver lining: With Democrats on the verge of losing control of the House and possibly (though unlikely) the Senate, the party is desperately seeking a silver lining tonight. Psychologically, they need Gov. Ted Strickland (D) to pull off a minor upset in Ohio's gubernatorial contest. Or Alex Sink (D) to win Florida's competitive governors race. Or Harry Reid to win Nevada's Toss-Up Senate race. They need SOMETHING to hold on to.

*** The battle for control: A reminder: Republicans need to net at least 39 House seats to win control of that chamber (the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report are estimating Republicans to gain between 50 and 65 seats). Republicans need to net at least 10 Senate seats to win control of that chamber (both Cook and Rothenberg predict they'll win between six and eight seats).

*** Why 2012 is unlikely to resemble 2010: And a final reminder: As MSNBC.com's Carrie Dann noted yesterday, what happens in a midterm election doesn't predict the presidential contest two years later. In 1982, we saw Republicans suffer House losses, but Ronald Reagan easily won re-election in '84. In 1994, Democrats lost control of the House and Senate, but Clinton was easily re-elected in '96. As much as has happened in the past two years, it's hard to believe that things won't change between now and 2012 -- unless, of course, the unemployment rate remains where it is now.

*** Other fingertip facts: Fifty-one vulnerable House Democrats who voted for both health care and the energy bill (nicknamed by some "cap-n-trade") sit in districts carried by Obama in 2008… Democrats hold another 49 districts that McCain carried in '08… The last time the House majority changed this fast (four years) was in the '50s when Republican Joe Martin and Democrat Sam Rayburn traded the gavel back-n-forth twice between '46 and '56… The last time a party picked up 10 or more Senate seats in an election year was 1958 (Ike's 2nd term), and before that it was in '46 (Truman's first midterm)… The last time a political party netted more than 60 House seats (let alone 70) was in 1948, when Dems picked up 75 seats... The largest swing in the last 100 years was in 1932, when FDR swung 97 House seats… The best Republican gain in the House in the last 100 years was in 1938 (FDR's second term; post-Social Security, by the way). That year, the GOP netted 80 House seats.

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