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The evidence is piling up: President Bush’s numbers are sliding; more Americans say the country is headed “off on the wrong track”; and voters are announcing in “generic ballot tests” that they intend to vote Democratic for Congress. It’s time to ponder whether we are witnessing the early stages of a Democratic wave that could overwhelm Congressional Republicans in November.
Speaking on background, Democratic consultants I contacted recently welcomed the new political environment — but they acknowledged that the party is not yet within hailing distance of retaking the House.
Instead, party insiders are content to argue that the new landscape offers them an opportunity later this year to make substantial gains — gains they had not seriously contemplated six to eight months ago.
That seems about right to me.
While the generic ballot has not recently been as good a predictor as it once was, the movement to the Democrats is simply too strong to be ignored. That said, a number of factors make 2004 different from 1994, the year a GOP wave drowned dozens of Democrats.
Since that famous wave, another round of House reapportionment and redistricting has shrunk the number of competitive districts, making it more difficult for either party to put together a wave. And a second round of redistricting in Texas last year will surely add at least three more seats into the Republican column.
A decade ago, Democrats were hurt by open seats and untested incumbents. Republicans won 22 of 31 Democratic open seats in 1994, and 16 of the 34 incumbents who went down to defeat were making their first run for reelection, according to that year’s Congressional Quarterly Almanac. By contrast, Republican vulnerability is much more limited this year, measured both by open seats and by untested incumbents.
Republicans also benefited from open Senate seats a decade ago. This time, Democrats are defending several open seats, and most of the Senate seats in play are in the South or in other reliably Republican states. That, too, minimizes Democratic opportunities.
Most important of all, 1994 was a midterm election — not a presidential year. The only way for voters to express their dissatisfaction with then-President Bill Clinton was to use the Congressional ballot. This year, however, voters can split their tickets, and that simple fact lessens the likelihood of a wave.
And yet there is one considerable factor that points in the Democrats’ favor. In 1994, the Republicans had to put together a huge wave, since they needed to net more than three dozen House seats and seven Senate seats to gain control of Congress. This year, the Democrats need to net only a dozen House seats and one or two Senate seats to make Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) the Speaker of the House and Tom Daschle (S.D.) the Senate Majority Leader.
At this point, GOP consultants say they detect only limited evidence that downballot candidates are paying a price for public pessimism and the president’s slide in popularity.
District-level polling generally confirms national poll numbers — namely, a surge in Americans who say the country is heading off on the wrong track. Republican insiders also acknowledge some movement — not in their favor — in the so-called generic ballot in individual districts.
But the same observers insist that they are not seeing a significant erosion of Republican strength in ballot test numbers or in favorable ratings for Republican incumbents.
Still, Republican insiders have started to show signs of concern both about Bush and about control of Congress.
The worsening public mood “isn’t having an impact now [on Republican House and Senate candidates], but what happens if the trend continues?” one GOP consultant told me recently. “The national political scene is not good for Republicans now.”
“Safe incumbents are still safe,” predicted another Republican operative, “but their margins are going to be down.”
Strategists from both parties emphasize that recent events have hurt the president, and add that other events during the next two months could reverse the recent trendlines or, alternately, add to Bush’s woes.
In any case, Republicans can’t merely assume that downballot candidates will be insulated from the president’s slide.
It is quite possible, as one Democratic consultant argued, that Republican House and Senate candidates aren’t seeing their numbers drop yet because voters are focused on the presidential race. When those same voters start to consider their choices for the House and Senate, this theory goes, they may also start to express more dissatisfaction with GOP downballot candidates.
As for Democratic opportunities, remember Larry DeNardis? He was a moderate Republican from New Haven, Conn., who was swept out in the 1982 wave. And he could serve as a model for Democrats who hope to ride — and need — a wave.
Even a small Democratic breeze could enhance the chances of long-shot Democratic challenges in the Northeast. Candidates such as Lois Murphy (against Rep. Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania’s 6th district), Steve Brozak (against Rep. Mike Ferguson in New Jersey’s 7th district) and Diane Farrell (against Rep. Christopher Shays in Connecticut’s 4th district) face an almost impossible task in running against an incumbent in a district located in an expensive media market. But a Democratic wave could boost the prospects of those long shots.
Unless the public’s mood about the country and President Bush turns upward quickly, Republican House and Senate candidates won’t be able to use the president as they intended, or as they did in 2002.
“Bush is not going to be the weapon that Republicans expected he would be in places like Colorado, West Virginia and even Nebraska,” argued one Democratic operative. “Weak Republican and Independent voters are much more open to our ideas. Bush provided a gateway into the Republican Party for voters in states like Georgia and North Carolina in 2002. This time we will have that gateway.”
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.