We have been told that the Republicans received quite a “thumping” (or was it “thumpin’”?) at the polls last Tuesday. With significant—albeit not world-historical—losses in both the House and the Senate, that characterization is hard to deny.
Of course, as many have pointed out, this was basically an average result for a “six-year-itch” midterm election. After six years of a presidency, voters tend to take their frustrations out on the president’s party. In 1998, Bill Clinton’s Democrats dodged that bullet. This time around, George W. Bush’s Republicans didn’t. Had the parties not been so closely divided in the House and the Senate, an “average” change would hardly have been earth-shattering. But this time it is: we look forward—with anticipation or dread—to Speaker Pelosi, and Chairmen Conyers and Leahy, for example.
Another way to look at the election is to consider each party’s share of the two-party vote in all the contested House races. By my reckoning, the 33.4 million votes Republicans won this time amounts to about a 48% share of the two-party vote. In 2004, by contrast, Republicans won roughly 51.5% of the two-party vote in contested House races. A 3% shift isn’t much, except when it’s your margin. Then it’s everything.
Of course, we can’t forget that almost twice as many votes were cast in 2004 as in 2006. Voters mobilized to the polls in a hotly contested 2008 presidential election could conceivably wash away this House result. And with a different set of Senate seats up for grabs, Republicans could easily, in a good year, regain control of that chamber as well.
There’s a lesson here for both parties, one that it was painful for the Republicans to learn last week. Each time you run for office, the electorate is different. A good or bad result in an off year can be effaced when many more voters come to the polls in a presidential year. Similarly, a good or bad result in a presidential year can be reversed by the significantly smaller pool of voters who show up in the off years.
Of the 28 Republican-held seats that were taken by Democrats this time, 15 were won in 2004 with at least 60% of the vote. Eleven unseated Republican incumbents probably thought they had won by relatively “safe” margins the last time out. They were wrong.
The good news is that I don’t think many Republicans will take their electoral prospects for granted in the next cycle. They can’t. Consider these numbers for the 2006 House races:
|Total (Re-election Rate)||204 (90%)||189 (100%)|
Roughly half (99) of the Republican Congressmen in the 110th Congress won with 60% or less of the vote. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll be running scared and smart in 2008. (Here’s hoping that they’re not frightened into cravenness or into retirement.)
By contrast, only a handful of Democrats (23, if I’m not mistaken) won this time with 60% or less of the vote. 186 of them won at least 61% of the vote, and 108—yes, that’s right, 108, almost half the caucus—either won at least 71% of the vote or were unopposed for reelection. They have every reason, it would seem, to feel confident—a Republican might hope overconfident—about their job security and hold on Congress.
By the way, even in 2004, a relatively good year for Republicans, roughly twice as many Republicans (64) as Democrats (33) won with 60% of the vote or less. And substantially more Democrats (87) than Republicans (61) won with at least 71% of the vote. It’s also worth noting that only six incumbents overall (2 Republicans, 4 Democrats, all of the latter thanks to Texas’ redistricting) were defeated.
It’s tempting to argue that Democrats have an advantage over Republicans when it comes to ultra-safe seats, seats that no one from the other party can imagine winning. Consider these 2006 numbers: 20 of California’s 34 Democratic members of Congress hold ultra-safe seats, as do 8 of Illinois’ 10 Congressional Democrats and 16 of the 23 elected in New York. Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts must envy the nine other Democrats who, with him, comprise the whole of that state’s Congressional delegation. The others received at least 70% of the vote, while he only garnered a 65% share.
The relatively small number of comparable Republican seats are largely found in the South. In this election, for example, all seven of Georgia’s incumbent Republican Congressmen won between 67 and 78% of the vote. But that’s still a far cry from Brooklyn’s Edolphus Towns, who won 92% of the vote, Charles Rangel’s 94%, and Jose Serrano’s 96%, to pick some of the gaudiest results put up in the face of “challenges.”
Perhaps Republicans can look on the bright side of this Democratic advantage. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and many of her committee chairs come from ultra-safe urban districts. They don’t know what it means to run a competitive election. They don’t really have to engage with constituents who meaningfully disagree with them. They can handily win reelection without reaching out or giving an inch to the other side. They’re prime candidates, in other words, for being out of touch, for complacency and overconfidence.
Of course, this may not happen overnight. They’ve been out of power for awhile, and may have been chastened by the experience (though I have to confess that I see just a very little in their rhetoric that suggests that). But if—I should say, when—they play true to form, they’ll outrun the slightly right of center consensus that still marks American public opinion. Republicans had better be prepared to seize that opportunity when it presents itself.
Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this was a close election. A shift of a couple thousand votes in Montana, or a few thousand more in Virginia, would have left the Senate in Republican hands. A shift of less than 40,000 votes into the Republican column in closely contested races would have left them in control of the House.
Republicans have an opportunity, and a very powerful incentive throughout their ranks, to figure out what it takes to win closely contested elections. Democrats will, I think, have a harder time living with their prosperity. Their leaders have no personal electoral incentive to moderate their views, and it remains to be seen whether they have the self-discipline and imagination to afford those colleagues who need the latitude to speak the moderate to conservative language their constituents understand.
As we begin to think about 2008, two things are worth remembering. First, as I noted earlier, every two years the electorate is different. And second, incumbent members of Congress are typically most vulnerable the first time they stand for reelection. Most of the newly elected Democrats will face a stiff challenge the next time around. Enough of them seem vulnerable to make 2008 worth looking forward to.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.