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Midterm election trends

- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

To lose control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party, which is now in its 12th year as the chamber's majority party, would have to suffer a net loss 15 seats in the November midterm elections. By historical standards, that is not a very tall order. On the other hand, if historical trends played out during the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans would not have added half a dozen seats in the House.

To be sure, midterm elections have not been kind to presidents or their parties. For example, since 1862, there have been 36 midterm elections held during the first or second terms of an administration. In 33 of those 36 elections, the opposition party gained strength in the House. That's the bad news for the Bush administration and the Republican Party. The good news is that the three anomalous midterm elections in which the president's party gained strength in the House included the last two midterm campaigns. (The third occasion was the 1934 election held during Franklin Roosevelt's first term.)

The 20th century was particularly unkind to presidents and their party's House members in the midterm elections occurring during the second term of an administration -- what Congressional Quarterly has aptly dubbed "The Sixth Year Swoon." During the first 90 years of the 20th century, for example, there were nine midterm elections held during an administration's second term. Each time, the president's party lost House seats. Those losses averaged 33 seats (or more than double the number of seats Democrats must win to gain control). Major second-midterm blowouts for the party occupying the White House included 71 seats lost in 1938 during Franklin Roosevelt's second term, 47 in 1958 during Dwight Eisenhower's second term, 47 in 1966 in the second term of the Kennedy-Johnson administration and 43 seats in 1974 during the Nixon-Ford era.

Contrary to the experience of the century's first 90 years, however, the Democratic Party actually gained a handful of House seats in the second midterm election (1998) during Bill Clinton's administration. And it is probably worth pointing out that Republicans lost only five House seats in Ronald Reagan's second midterm election (1986) -- although the GOP was clobbered that year in the Senate, when it lost eight seats and majority control.

Successfully bucking the century's trend in 1998 provided Democrats with little solace, given that Republicans maintained control in the House, which they captured in the 1994 midterm elections by winning 54 more House seats (230) than they won in 1992 (176). Indeed, after 40 years of unrestrained Democratic domination in the House, the 1994 national rebellion against Clinton policies (Hillarycare et al.) devastated the House Democratic Caucus, a defeat from which the Democrats have yet to recover. In fact, a slew of Democratic defections in 1995 helped to increase the House Republican caucus to a peak of 236 members before the 1996 elections. Despite the fact that Democrats chipped away at the Republicans' House majority during the 1996 elections (nine seats), 1998 midterms (four seats) and 2000 elections (two seats), today Republicans control more House seats (232, including one vacancy) than they did on the morning after the 1994 election (230).

At this stage of the 2006 election campaign, it is impossible to know if Democrats will regain control of the House in November. Historical trends and the president's current political problems notwithstanding, Democrats possibly still face an uphill battle. Worth noting is the fact that, while Republicans won 232 House seats in 2004, President Bush carried 255 congressional districts that year. Not only is that 23 districts more than Republicans won; it is 37 more than they need to retain majority status in 2006.

Republicans will continue to benefit from the reapportionment of 12 seats after the 2000 census, most of which were transferred to Republican-friendly states in the South and West from Democratic-leaning states. (Democratic-friendly California, which picked up seven new seats after the 1990 census, picked up only one seat from the 2000 count.) Republicans will continue to collect future dividends from their masterful redistricting efforts in 2001, when Republican-gerrymandered districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida outweighed Democratic-gerrymandered districts in Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia. By itself, the 2003 Texas redistricting process produced a gain of five Republican seats in the 2004 elections, which was sufficient to overcome smaller Democratic gains elsewhere in the nation.

In California, New York, Illinois and Ohio, bipartisan redistricting effectively produced scores and scores of strongly protected incumbents and far fewer contested seats. Indeed, as reported by Congressional Quarterly, which rated "only 37 seats [eight fewer than in 2002] in its highly competitive categories (No Clear Favorite or Leans to one party)" in 2004, "excluding Texas, just [eight] seats changed party hands, which would have been the lowest party turnover rate in at least 50 years." Including four Texas Democratic incumbents who were defeated in Republican-gerrymandered districts, a staggering 98.2 percent of incumbents seeking re-election were returned to office. Moreover, only 10 races among the 435 congressional districts were decided by less than 5 percentage points, a postwar record-low number.

While so many in the news media have suddenly become "concerned" about the re-election rate of House members and its impact on the "democratic process," it must be noted that for each of the eight House elections preceding the Republicans' 1994 triumph, the incumbent-re-election rate in that Democratic-dominated body never fell below 90 percent; and the average re-election rate over that 16-year period was 94.7 percent, according to the book "Vital Statistics on Congress." That said, if the 2002 and 2004 results are any indication, Republicans helped themselves immensely in the redistricting process, as Democrats had done for decades when they dominated so many state legislatures. In fact, only two incumbent Republicans were defeated in 2004, which was two more than the number who lost in 1994.

Reviewing the 435 districts last fall, political analyst Charlie Cook identified only 33 Republican seats and 22 Democratic seats as competitive for 2006. Stuart Rothenberg, another well-respected political analyst who tracks congressional races, said on MSNBC's "Hardball" on Jan. 11 that "there are only two or three dozen competitive races this cycle." In late November, Congressional Quarterly reported that its analysis concluded that only 55 House seats appear "remotely competitive"; and only two dozen of those were rated "highly competitive." The Republicans held an estimated 195 "safe seats," well on its way to the magic majority number of 218. Fifteen of the 24 "highly competitive" seats were held by Republicans. To get to 218, Democrats would have to sweep all of them and hold all nine Democratic "highly competitive" seats. Otherwise, Democrats will have to make inroads in districts considered to be relatively safe. That is a tough challenge. A recent National Journal analysis of the all 435 seats revealed that "only 34 held by Republicans and 40 held by Democrats have changed hands at least once during the five election cycles starting in 1996."

Finally, to the extent that money will be a factor -- and money is always a factor in politics -- Republican House candidates outraised their Democratic counterparts by 30 percent ($399 million vs. $307 million) during the 2003-04 election cycle. That won't change. In addition, the National Republican Campaign Committee raised twice the amount of hard money ($186 million) that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised ($93 million) during the 2003-04 cycle. There is no reason to believe that situation will change.

Of course, a lot can happen -- and surely will -- during the next nine and a half months.