Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Fight for Congress

Most pundits say there is little chance of the Democrats wresting control of the House of Representatives from the GOP this election year. The latest congressional redistricting in most states further solidified the creation of safe districts for incumbents such that very few districts are expected to be in play in any given election year. With the Republicans currently enjoying a 228-206 advantage, few have dared to suggest that the Democrats have more than a long shot chance to become the majority party.

The unprecedented mid-decade redistricting in Texas alone is seen as likely to result in a pickup of 4 or 5 seats for the GOP, further widening the gap that the Demos would have to narrow. Here is one Republican's assessment of which races should be competitive in the House. More attention has been given to the Senate where the margin is much narrower, and more Demos are daring to hope for majority status.

The conventional wisdom may well turn out to be true, but here is my contrarian speculation that the House is actually likelier to change hands than the Senate. I will grant that this is partly wishful thinking on my part, as a majority switch in the House stands to create more political thunder than a switch in the Senate where greater moderation on both sides of the aisle tends to dampen the influence of the majority, especially when it's a slim one. Some may argue that the Senate is more important due to its role in confirming appointments, but it's the House where continuous control by Republicans since 1995 has resulted in partisan entrenchment and the establishment of rules creating institutional barriers to change rivaling those which the Democrats had built up after forty years of control of that body prior to the Republican Revolution of 1994. Frankly our nation would be well served by at least one switch in party control per decade to avoid that type of petty partisanship.

My inclination to believe a Democratic surprise may be in the works stems from the tide of unabashedly liberal activism, and the rising concerns of libertarians and fiscal conservatives, both of which have sprung up in reaction to the Bush administration's four-headed approach to governing by warmongering, rights abatement, deficit spending, and cultural divisiveness. This isn't to suggest that I don't believe the polls that show a closely split and increasingly polarized electorate, nor that I believe the Republican base isn't also going to vote in record numbers. But among the many constituencies which are NOT in either party's base, I suggest that those who are inclined to oppose Bush will be voting at a substantially higher rate than those inclined to support him. This is why the polls may be "lying".

While events could yet conspire for things not to turn out that way, this potential differential in who shows up in November could translate into both an unexpected landslide for Kerry, and longer coattails than have been seen in years. The reason I think the coattails might be more noticeable in the House than the Senate is largely regional. Only one-third of all Senate seats are up for a vote, and many of the closer races are for southern seats currently occupied by Democrats. The stronger cultural conservatism in the South is likely to mitigate my suggested turnout differential there, and the loss of just two or three of those Senate seats is likely to be insurmountable. In contrast, as always, every seat in the House is up for re-election, and a motivated large anti-Bush turnout could produce more surprises in House races previously not believed to be in play.

As a partisan myself, I am especially anxious to see the Democratic Leadership put more resources than they might otherwise be inclined to, into House races which have historically gone Republican with percentages in the high 50s and even low 60s, especially outside of the South. One strategic arm of the Democratic establishment, the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) seemed to share my take on the unique opportunity of 2004 back in their September 2003 Board Memo:

As President Bush’s ratings continue to slip, and the Republicans continue to be wrong on the issues that matter most to people, Democratic races for the US House and Senate have become even more competitive. Principally because of 2002 redistricting there are a smaller number of competitive US House races. While it will be a truly difficult challenge to overcome a 22-seat GOP advantage in the House, a weakened Bush and discredited GOP has the potential of putting many more House seats “in play” in 2004. It is possible that by this time next year there will be significantly more competitive House races and the Democrat’s prospects of recapturing control of Congress will be much brighter.
But in their more recent winter newsletter, they backed substantially away from such optimism, only barely mentioning that:

In addition there is a strong chance Democrats will be able to pick up a couple of seats in the House of Representatives.

In contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, more of a fund-raising organization dedicated to winning seats in Congress, at least officially, seems to remain more hopeful. Personally I wish that Tom DeLay could become the sort of political lightning rod for the left, that Ted Kennedy and Hillary have become for the right. "Demote DeLay" could become the generic "vote for your local Democrat for Congress" yard sign. Alas it would be lost on the average voter outside of DeLay's own district, who's not inclined to think of their vote as having anything to do with majority control of Congress.

Control of the House by the Democrats, should my November surprise actually occur, is likely to be short-lived however. If accompanied by a Kerry Presidency, the motivated electorate I'm hypothesizing to show up to turn out Bush will fall back to their usual habits in two years, and the redistricting to favor the party currently in power will not have changed, meaning the GOP would retake most of the seats they lose this time around. Even so, an interruption to a Republican majority, should be celebrated by moderates everywhere, as it should substantially quell the activist right-wing freight train being led by Hastert and DeLay.

As far as my personal druthers are concerned, I actually am hoping for my prediction not only in the House but in the Senate as well, since I see the advantage of some of the moderate Republican leadership in that body tempering possible excesses of what would otherwise be one-party control across the board. This in spite of the fact that I test to the left of Kucinich in this on-line measurement of one's political compass, though I remain very skeptical of that result.

Posted by Walker Willingham at June 11, 2004 11:20 PM