Rothenberg: Finally, It’s Over (The 2004 Election, That Is)

Posted December 9, 2004 at 10:29am

The 2004 election cycle ended Tuesday with a whimper rather than a bang.

Democrats and Republicans traded seats in Louisiana’s runoffs, giving the Republicans a total of 232 seats in the next Congress. That is a small gain for them, and it gives Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) 14 more seats than the 218 they need to organize the House in January.

[IMGCAP(1)] Democrats immediately responded by sending out a press release claiming that they had a successful cycle, and Democratic consultants who worked on Democrat Charlie Melancon’s victory in the contest in Louisiana’s 3rd district bragged that their successful campaign constituted “a model for Democratic wins in red states and red districts.”

First, let’s look at the cycle.

Whether or not you believe that the Democrats had a successful cycle in House races depends on your frame of reference. When the cycle began, President Bush looked strong and Democrats were worried about money and recruiting. Compared to that outlook, House Democrats dodged a bullet.

But a few months ago, in the face of weak jobs numbers, casualties in Iraq and doubts about the president’s re-election, Democrats turned optimistic about making House gains in November. Even forgetting all of the silliness about winning control of the chamber, Democratic insiders hoped to net four to eight seats on Election Day. Instead, the party lost seats.

As for the DCCC’s argument that the party gained seats throughout the cycle (because party switches and Texas’ results should be ignored), I’ll give the folks at the committee a little Christmas present by ignoring their argument. But I’ll bet you can guess what I think about it. All I will say is that House Republicans have reason to feel very satisfied with the results.

Now, let’s turn to the argument that Melancon’s victory is some kind of road map for Democratic campaigns in other red states.

Taking nothing away from Melancon’s campaign — which was far better than that of fellow Democrat Willie Mount in the neighboring 7th district — it is simply misleading to portray the 3rd district race as an impossibly uphill fight for the Democrat in the runoff, or as a road map for anything.

Yes, Bush carried the district in 2004 with 58 percent, half a dozen points better than his 52 percent showing in 2000. But Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu carried the district two years earlier with 52 percent in her runoff, and conservative Democrats continue to do well in the district. (Remember, Rep. Billy Tauzin was elected and re-elected as a Democrat for years before switching to the GOP.)

More importantly, Republican nominee Billy Tauzin III was widely viewed, by Democrats and Republicans alike, as a poor candidate. Young, inexperienced and — if you believe Republican insiders — clueless about what it would take to win, the son of outgoing Representative Tauzin was an easy target for his opponents.

Tauzin III, by the way, was only one on a growing list of candidates who recently failed to follow a family member into the House, even though political dynasty building has become increasingly common in recent years. Brad Smith, son of Michigan GOP Rep. Nick Smith, and Scott Armey, some of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R), are two obvious examples of political flops.

Republicans were divided in the runoff in Louisiana’s 3rd, with state Sen. Craig Romero (R), who finished a close third, angry with young Tauzin for his tactics in the open primary. In fact, Romero took print ads out against Tauzin in the runoff and never endorsed him.

Melancon wisely ran as hard and fast as he could to his right. And then, in the runoff, he spent most of his time beating up on the younger Tauzin. What’s so new about that?

Democratic operatives who are happy with Melancon’s victory may choose to focus on their nominee’s campaign and pat themselves on the back for being brilliant, having a great team, creating an allegedly insightful strategy, and making “over 100 good decisions about message, politics, budgeting and timing over the course of nine months.”

But before they brag about their own brilliance, they might want to consider the obvious: This race turned on Tauzin III’s weaknesses.

Here is the real lesson of the race in Louisiana’s 3rd: When Democrats get good candidates and Republicans get bad ones, Democrats will win more of their races. If you think that’s news, you’ve been living under a rock for years.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.