Despite the recent uptick in both the President’s approval rating and the GOP’s performance against the Democrats on a “generic” ballot of party choice, things are not looking good for Republicans in November.
The most recent Evans-Novak report has 39 Republican seats at risk. Of course, only in an absolute electoral meltdown would the GOP lose that many House members. But since the Democrats only have to net 15 seats to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House (if she’s not successfully challenged), Republicans by any measure have an uphill climb to keep control of the lower chamber.
Things look a little better in the Senate but it is almost certain that the Republican advantage will decrease by as many as 2 and possibly 4 members. Such an outcome could set off the Jefford’s scenario; the Democrats courting two or perhaps even three Republican Senators to switch parties, an admittedly remote possibility but not out of the realm of the possible.
The most obvious candidate for such a switch, Lincoln Chaffee, is up for re-election this year and would find it hard if not impossible to switch parties after running and winning as a Republican. However, if the Democrats fall one Senator short of a majority, they’d be stupid not make the attempt. Jeffords was bought off rather cheaply. He was given the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee which he lost when the GOP reestablished control of the Senate in 2002. Chafee already has a seat on that backwater Committee as well as seats on the much more important Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees. Since Joe Biden will use the high profile media access that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee gets as part of his Presidential nominating strategy, it is unlikely he would step down.
But how about the Homeland Security Committee? The current ranking member for the Democrats is Joe Lieberman, who has been promised by Harry Reid that he will not lose his Chairmanship if he wins as an independent. So unless they offer Chafee a backwater Committee chairmanship (or perhaps a chance to keep his Foreign Affairs seat), it would be highly unlikely that despite the Senator’s discomfort at being around a bunch of goober chewing, red neck yahoos from Red State America, that he would be eager to leave a party in which he has built up so much seniority.
The House however is a different story. Evans-Novak:
The overall House picture for Republicans is bleak, although not hopeless. The British apprehension of the sky-bombing plotters has at least briefly helped Republicans catch up with Democrats in the generic ballot survey. But aside from that spike, if the election were held today, the GOP would probably lose 26 seats and their congressional majority.
There is still time left, but the buzz on the Hill is that many Republican staffers—including those working for safe members—are seeking employment elsewhere, dreading the miserable possibility of life in the congressional minority.
The Democrats’ chances at the House are very real right now. Republicans are hobbled by the fact that they have so many shaky seats to defend and so few that they can legitimately target. If they are to tighten the gap—and a USA Today poll released Tuesday indicates that they may now be doing so on the generic ballot—they must give voters a reason to come to the polls for them. They will probably lose any election that merely pits them as the status quo against Democrats who could be even worse—who could, for example, impeach President Bush. Republicans must also offer something positive to voters, but their lack of legislative accomplishments in this Congress makes it difficult.
The big X-factor is the Republicans’ vaunted micro-targeting turnout program, which is light-years ahead of anything the almost non-existent Democratic National Committee will be able to put together this year. The GOP turnout program produced a minor miracle in 2004, as new Republican voters showed up in droves. How many of those new voters will show up again this year? Republicans are honing the 2004 model and will experiment with new methods, as they typically do in off-year elections. Given the historically low turnout in mid-terms, how much this could soften the blow of 2006 is unknown.
I might mention that it is SOP for staffers to retool their resumes prior to any election for the simple reason that you never know when opportunity will come a’knocking. Elections always scramble things on the Hill with some people leaving for Committee work, others move on to think tanks, with many others taking lucrative lobbying jobs. This kind of churning before an election is not unusual.
As for turnout, there are pundits like Michael Barone who say that the outcome of midterms can be predicted based on turnout from previous election cycles. Barone points out that the Rovian magic formula could turn the predictions of all the prognosticators on their heads:
The slight uptick in Republican percentages in 2002 and 2004 can be explained by higher Republican turnout. Looking ahead to next November, there is reason to believe that the Republican base is turned off—by high spending, by immigration—and may not turn out as heavily. But if so, how much difference will that make?
Polls are not good predictors of turnout—only elections are. Last week, we had a special election in the 50th district of California, whose Republican congressman resigned in disgrace and went to prison. In 2004, the 50th district voted 55 percent for George W. Bush and 44 percent for John Kerry. Last week, the district voted 53 percent for Republicans (there were 14 candidates, the winner among whom goes on to a June 6 runoff) and 45 percent for Democrats. There were only two of them, and the leader, Francine Busby, got 44 percent of the vote—the same percentage as Kerry. That may be 1 percent higher when the last absentees are counted.
Republican turnout was down more than Democratic turnout, but only very slightly. Of course, things may change by November. But it looks like Hypothesis Two is still in force, and if so, Democrats will have a hard time winning control of the House.
One might note that the Evil One has almost dropped out of sight in recent weeks. This is not exactly true as Rove is criss crossing the country speaking before small groups of GOP activists, bucking up morale as well as laying the groundwork for the most sophisticated “Get out of the Vote” operation in the history of American politics. Can he do it again? Is there one more miracle up his sleeve, one more rabbit in the hat?
Alas, no matter how sophisticated Rove’s GOTV operation may be, you still have to have a base that’s motivated to go to the polls in the first place. It is not at all clear that in many of these “in play” races, that GOP voters could find a reason to support more of the same from incumbents who spend like drunken sailors, pork out with earmarks, and appear to be beholden to a bunch of fat cat lobbyists. A drop off in turnout of even 5% could doom most of the vulnerable Republican candidates.
Democrats on the other hand, energized for the first time in a decade and mad as hornets will almost certainly match and probably exceed their turnout numbers from 2002. And even though they haven’t advanced a single concrete idea on any national issue and continue to shoot themselves in the foot on national security matters, there is a clear sense in the country born out in poll after poll that the United States is headed in the wrong direction. Already, several high profile incumbents have been defeated in primaries, a sure sign of voter discontent. Whether that translates into a Democratic victory in November will not be up to either party because as it stands now, both Republicans and Democrats are hostage to events.
Gas prices, Iraq, inflation, terror plots, the Middle East, and most especially Iran could push and shove the electorate this way and that between now and election day. Since neither party is running on any grand ideas, these events will shape voter perceptions right up until the individual voter walks into the booth.
Most of those issues mentioned above are trending against the GOP which makes their problems even more difficult. On some level, the competence of the President is involved in each of those issues. The Democrats may not succeed in “nationalizing” the election by making Bush a major issue. But you can’t completely eliminate him from the mx either. Bad news on any of those fronts means bad news for Republicans.
With 10 weeks to go, the Democrats are confident and appear to be taking nothing for granted. The electorate seems to be moving their way. And perhaps not even the magic of Karl Rove can save the Republicans this time.