The Last Three Weeks: Localize or Nationalize?

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2006

With less than three weeks to go before the Election Day of 2006, polls show Republicans facing a serious risk of losing control of one or both houses of Congress. In the Senate, there are four Republican seats in extreme jeopardy (Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, and Ohio), another two on the borderline (Missouri and Tennessee), and one within range of a Democratic upset (Virginia). Although the 2000 elections swept in a weak cohort of Democratic Senators, including Debbie Stabenow (Michigan) and Maria Cantwell (Washington), there is only one Democratic seat that currently seems in any sort of serious jeopardy (New Jersey). In the House, almost every one of the twenty-five or thirty seats most vulnerable to a party shift are Republican seats. If Democrats win the 7-10 seats that many analysts think they have locked up and only split the rest of the close races, they will have the 15 seat pickup they need to gain control.

However, Democratic control is not assured. Much will depend on the last three weeks of the campaign, when a significant number of voters will really focus on the races and make up their minds. Consequently, a key strategic decision faces the Republicans. Should they accommodate the unhappy political environment, separate themselves from Washington as much as possible, and run on local issues? Or should they coalesce around a handful of common themes like national security, taxes, and judges, seeking to nationalize the election around issues where they are strongest relative to Democrats?

Several news reports this week suggested that Republican election committees had decided on the former approach, trying to save as many individuals as possible by advising them to localize their elections. There is some tactical merit in this approach; indeed, it is the same formula that helped Democrats maintain control of the House for forty years.

However, for several reasons, the option of nationalizing the election around Republican themes is more likely to save Republicans than attempting to flee the national issues of the campaign.

For one thing, this election has already been nationalized by Democrats who are hoping to ride to power on the basis of dissatisfaction with Iraq and the performance of the congressional majority. It is far from clear that Republicans could de-nationalize it if they wanted to. Accepting the challenge and offering a powerful national counterargument seems more likely to blunt the Democratic onslaught, such as it is, than acting as though the issues driving it do not exist. Republicans should tout their own accomplishments and hammer the Democrats on taxes, the economy, terrorism, and even Iraq. The administration has been strangely cautious about trumpeting some of the information that has been compiled about Saddam’s WMD capacities and ties to terrorism, reportedly because of a desire to avoid embarrassing certain foreign governments. Republican congressional candidates, however, have no reason to be shy.

Second, many polls show that the Democratic advantage in the election is largely (though not wholly) grounded in the fact that, at the moment, Democratic and liberal voters seem significantly more likely to vote Democratic than Republican and conservative voters are to vote Republican. A Republican comeback is going to depend on the GOP significantly reducing the defection rate among its voters. A three-week campaign focused on national issues of high policy is much more likely to stir Republican voters and bring them home than a series of three-week seminars on how Congressman X brought a new post office to Franklin City. Indeed, such seminars may well increase Republican disaffection, much of which is based on a perception that Republicans in Congress have thrown principle overboard and become a carbon copy of what they replaced in 1994.

Finally, historically, the Republicans have done their best when they have nationalized the election around big issues. The best-known examples are 1980, 1994, and 2002, when they made important gains (two of the three were in midterm election years). However, perhaps the more important case, for comparison today, is 1982. In that election—Ronald Reagan’s first midterm—Americans were in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, with an unemployment rate approaching 11 percent. Democrats ran a national campaign focused on the recession and the “unfairness” of the Reagan economic program. Republicans fought back with a national campaign touting the decline in inflation, blaming the recession on Jimmy Carter, and calling on Americans to “Stay the Course.”

In the end, Republicans lost 26 House seats, about half of which were due to redistricting, and actually gained two Senate seats. Many analysts credited the Republican counter-nationalization of the campaign for the results, both the Senate pickups and the fact that real Republican House losses were much lower than one might have expected given economic conditions. In contrast, in 1986, when Republicans ran no national campaign and encouraged each Senate candidate to run independently, they lost eight seats and control of the U.S. Senate.

Generally speaking, these points are related to the observation that Republicans, as a party, are more in need of a broad philosophical vision and a persuasive national argument than are Democrats, whose coalition is cemented less by common principles than by a series of payoffs from the federal treasury.

Despite news reports to the contrary, there are strong signs that Republicans are preparing a national thrust on terrorism. If they want to hold their majorities, they had better do that and more.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.