The Conservative Responsibility in 1996: A Symposium: Keep the Congress

James R. Rogers

June 1, 1996

The 1994 election ratified a long-term increase in the number of competitive congressional seats. After coming closer and closer in previous elections–GOP candidates polled over 50 percent of the ballots cast in 1992–Democrats fielded a particularly poor class of candidates in 1994 and GOP candidates drubbed their weak competition.

Conventional wisdom predicts a good year for Democratic congressional candidates. The Democratic presidential candidate currently appears popular and it appears that the economy will remain strong at least through the election.

Conventional wisdom, however, ignores several vital points. Clinton’s coattails proved short in 1992 and may prove very short again this year. First, congressional retirees are disproportionally Democratic. Republicans enjoy an incumbency advantage relative to Democrats. Secondly, Republican control of Congress has shifted the distribution of PAC contributions significantly in favor of Republican candidates. Thirdly, the 1994 congressional victory, with the promise of joining a legislative majority, should have the effect of attracting even more high quality Republican candidates.

The 1994 congressional victory reinvigorated the notion that elections are won when voters are presented with a coherent legislative agenda. The first key for 1996 is that Republican candidates cannot allow themselves to be defined by what they are against.

The dynamics of the presidential race is the unknown equation. Republican candidates should develop two distinct strategies depending on how the presidential race shakes out during the summer and early fall. If Dole becomes competitive with Clinton then here’s the message: “You’re frustrated with gridlock? So am I. Republicans haven’t controlled Washington for forty years. I’m just asking for two years with a Republican Congress and a Republican president. Give Republicans one good shot to get things done in Washington. I personally invite you to turn us out of office in two years if things haven’t changed.”

If Dole is not competitive and a Clinton victory is all but assured, here’s the message: “Remember the first two years of the Clinton presidency? Bureaucratized health care.
International confusion. Big government proposals. America needs a Republican Congress to offset a Democratic president. Remember, the president agreed to balance the federal budget only after the Republicans won in Congress, etc.”

There is no reason that 1996 should not be a good year for Republican
congressional candidates.

James R. Rogers teaches political science at Texas A & M University.