- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Second of two parts.

Four years ago this month, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont officially left the Republican Party and became an independent. In doing so, he flipped control of the Senate to the Democratic Party. Democrats, who had lost the Senate in 1994, were unable to keep their prize beyond the next election in 2002.

That year the Republicans became the first White House party to re-capture control of the Senate in a midterm election since the 17th Amendment mandated the direct popular election of senators beginning in 1914. Republicans consolidated their control in 2004, when they swept the five open Southern seats, all of which had been vacated by Democrats. The last time the Democratic Party had fewer Senate seats than it has today (44), Herbert Hoover was president.

Before losing control of the Senate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide, in which Republicans defeated nine Democratic incumbent senators and captured three open seats without losing a single race, Democrats — except for the first two years (1953-54) of President Eisenhower’s first term — had controlled the Senate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. Democrats regained control of the Senate in the 1986 elections, but lost it decisively in 1994, when House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich nationalized the midterm elections by campaigning on the Contract with America. In the five subsequent elections (1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004), Democrats failed to gain a Senate majority each time.

Today, the Democratic membership in the Senate is at its lowest point since the first years of the Great Depression, when the party’s prospects for the future were undeniably, and understandably, outstanding. Clearly, that is not the case today. In 1932, for example, the unemployment rate was 23.6 percent and rising. Today, it is 5.1 percent and falling. In 1932, gross domestic product (GDP), measured in constant dollars to adjust for price changes, was 28 percent below its level three years earlier. GDP today (based on the latest data), is 11 percent above its level three years earlier. In other words, the Democrats’ fortunes, at their current low ebb, in no way resemble their prospects the last time they had fallen this far.

Moreover, in the years before and after the Great Depression, Democrats had a firm foundation in the South, where they controlled 100 percent of the 22 Senate seats from the Old Confederacy. Today, that Southern foundation belongs to Republicans, and therein lies the story of the Democrats’ senatorial decline and poor prospects. Indeed, it was fitting that Democrats reached their current nadir after losing the five Southern Democratic seats (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Louisiana) in the 2004 elections.

As recently as the 1960 elections, Democrats controlled all 22 seats in the 11 states that comprised the Old Confederacy. Republicans did not make their breakthrough until 1961 in Texas. John Tower, whom Democratic vice presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson defeated by 17 points in 1960 while also running to retain his Senate seat in case Richard Nixon beat John Kennedy, narrowly won a run-off election in May 1961 with 50.6 percent to capture the Senate seat vacated by LBJ.

Thus was the Democratic monopoly in the South broken. Three years later Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched parties, becoming the second Republican senator in the South. Still, by controlling 20 of the 22 Southern seats after the 1964 elections, Democrats reached their largest Senate membership level (68) since 1939 (69). Never again would their majority be so large. For Republicans, Barry Goldwater’s victories in five contiguous states in the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina) represented the silver lining in their 1964 election debacle.

However, even after Richard Nixon’s massive re-election in 1972, when he won landslide victories throughout the South, the Republicans managed to control only seven Southern Senate seats. After the 1976 election, only five Southern Senate seats were held by Republicans. Four of the 12 Senate seats captured in 1980 with the help of Ronald Reagan’s coattails included Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Following Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide, Republican-controlled Southern Senate seats totaled 10, still less than half. After Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election, in which Democrats suffered a net loss of two Senate seats as Republicans won Democratic seats in Alabama and the president’s native Arkansas, the Republicans controlled 15 Southern Senate seats. By then, the South had become instrumental to the Republican Party’s 55-seat majority.

During the 2002 and 2004 elections, the Republicans swept all nine open Southern Senate seats. Today, Republicans occupy 18 of the 22 seats of the Old Confederacy. When Oklahoma and Kentucky are included as Southern states, as the authoritative Congressional Quarterly has historically categorized them, Republicans today control 22 of the 26 seats.

Thus, 40 percent of the Republican majority membership resides in the South. Given the likelihood that the trend in Republican-dominated Southern representation in the Senate will continue indefinitely, Democratic efforts to regain control will be severely complicated.

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