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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems Sobering Up for ’06 House Races

by EDM Staff
New York Times reporter Robin Toner has some strong black coffee for Dems still buzzed on the sweet wine of last Tuesday’s election results. In her post-mortem “An Opening for Democrats, However Slim,” Toner offers some sobering numbers outlining the challenge we face next November in winning a net pick-up of 15 seats needed for a House of Reps majority:

In the last three Congressional elections, the incumbent re-election rate has hovered from 96 to 98 percent, among the highest since World War II. In 2004, only seven incumbents were defeated in the general election, four of them Texas Democrats pushed into new districts engineered by Republicans.
…political analysts can identify only two or three dozen House seats that are, at the moment, competitive. Gaining 15 seats out of that small a group would be like threading a needle. In contrast, 15 months before the 1994 election, the Cook Political Report, an independent handicapper of House races, rated 89 seats as competitive – based on fund-raising, the strength of the incumbent and the challenger, and the political demographics of the district.
…by many measures, the Republicans had more targets of opportunity a decade ago than Democrats do today. In 1992, 56 Democrats won with 55 percent of the vote or less, an indicator of their vulnerability in 1994, according to Cook. Only 19 Republicans won with 55 percent or less in 2004.
Or consider this: 103 Congressional districts in 1992 voted for one party’s candidate for president and another party’s candidate for the House, a marker of a potential swing district. In 2004, there were only 59 such districts…
But perhaps the most striking advantage the Republicans had in 1994 was the number of Democratic retirements: there were 52 open seats that year, 31 of them that had been held by Democrats, according to Cook. So far in this cycle, Republicans have 13 open seats, Democrats 7. Open seats are much easier for the other party to capture.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, noted that even in the toughest, throw-the-bums-out political season, like 1982 or 1994, only about 10 percent of incumbents are defeated.

Yet, as Toner notes, Dems have some promising advantages that could translate into upset victories, such as growing GOP ethics problems. Republicans will also be more wedded to failed Iraq policy, high gas prices and bungled hurricane relief 11 months from now. In addition, Linda Feldman’s article “Election ’05 Gives Democrats Hope” in The Christian Science Monitor spotlights Tim Kaine’s Virginia win as an indication that Dems may be able to turn growing public concerns about fiscal responsibility to their advantage. Feldman quotes Bob Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond on the powerful precedent set for Dems by former Governor Warner:

What Mark Warner helped to do is transform the political culture of a red state and make it far more amenable to Democratic perspectives. Clearly, in Virginia and in the South, Democrats have found it successful to run as the fiscally responsible party. Given all the current spending by the Bush administration, there’s an opportunity for that message to resonate nationally.

Despite the daunting numbers cited by Toner, University of California redistricting expert Bruce Caine points out in her article, “The annals of redistricting are replete with stories of parties that thought they drew themselves into safety but got blown away.” And U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees as many as 50 competitive House races. With good candidates, credible alternative policies and hard work, a net pick-up of 15 of those House seats should be possible.