Congressional Competition: Gone with the Wind

Larry J. Sabato
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Posted: Mar 17, 2006 8:05 AM

We all live in the moment, and we often mistakenly believe that what is true today was true always. Not so in politics, and especially in Congressional elections.

Turnover in the modern U.S. House of Representatives is minimal. Redistricting and the advantages of incumbency help to insure it. Take a look at the last couple of midterm elections for proof.

In 1998, President Clinton's sixth-year election, just 33 House members out of 435 stepped down from their posts--many to seek another elected office such as a Senate seat or a Governorship. A mere seven U.S. Representatives lost their House seats through defeat, one in a primary and the other six in the general election. The overall reelection rate for House members seeking another term was 98 percent.

In 2002, President Bush's first midterm election, just 35 House members retired--almost a carbon copy of 1998. But wait, what's this? Sixteen House members were beaten for reelection, eight in primaries and eight in the general election. It looks like an outbreak of competition, except for two factors: (1) 2002 was the first election after the 2001 Census-driven redistricting, and some incumbents were drawn into the same districts--so a few incumbents had to lose. (2) The reelection rate for House members plummeted from the 98 percent of 1998 all the way down to...96 percent. So it was still very safe for incumbents to come out and play.

What about in the Senate? It's true that these high-profile contests can result in greater turnover, yet the reelection rates are still sky-high. Only five incumbents retired in each of 1998 and 2002, with three incumbents losing in 1998 and four going down to defeat (one in a primary) in 2002. Therefore, the reelection rate for U.S. Senators in 1998 was 89 percent and in 2002 was 86 percent. Senators were not as safe as House members, but the odds favored them by a wide margin.

Do these numbers tell us anything about the current 2006 cycle? Every year is different, of course, and there's no question that Republicans have a much tougher year in 2006 than they did in 2002, when President Bush was exceptionally popular, or even 1998, when GOP fortunes took a nosedive because of a backlash to the Republican-led impeachment of President Clinton. Quite a few GOP incumbents are nervous or even running scared in 2006 in the dreaded sixth-year itch election, with President Bush's polls at an all-time low (Iraq, Katrina, gas prices, etc.) and the corruption issue possibly taking hold in some states and districts.

Yet consider this: Just 24 House members have announced plans to step down so far--the lowest number in a midterm election year since 1966! Most change occurs in open seats, with no incumbent running. Democrats have to gain 15 seats, net, to take control of the House. But of the 24 open seats, only 16 are currently held by Republicans. Democratic chances of winning many of the GOP open seats are next to nil, since many of these seats are heavily Republican, including these seven:

* Michael Bilirakis (R-FL 9)
* Joel Hefley (R-CO 5)
* Bill Jenkins (R-TN 1)
* Ernest Istook (R-OK 5)
* Tom Osborne (R-NE 3)
* Butch Otter (R-ID 1)
* Bill Thomas (R-CA 22)

No realistic Democrat expects to win any of these berths, and The Crystal Ball could have added several more to the list--seats likely to be held by the GOP, though its chances are a bit less steady than usual (such as OH-4, FL-13, and NV-2). We'll be very surprised if Democrats manage to win even four or five of the remaining six open GOP seats (AZ-8, IL-6, MN-6, CO-7, WI-8, and IA-1). Finally, let's not forget that the Republicans have decent shots at two Democratic open seats, OH-6 where Ted Strickland is leaving to run for Governor, and VT-At Large where Bernie Sanders is vacating to bid for the Senate.

The long and short of this analysis is that the Democrats may gain a third or so of the 15 seats they need to control the House from the pool of open seats, but they'd have to knock off perhaps ten Republican incumbents to "grab the brass ring." And that is not an easy task. Democrats have to hope for more retirements as the year rolls on, while Republicans must hope their leadership continues to be successful in keeping the incumbent troops on the ballot.

Democrats are getting even less help in the Senate. Just four Senators are stepping down, the lowest midterm election number since 1990. What's worse for them, three of the four retirees are Democrats: Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Jim Jeffords of Vermont (technically an Independent), and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. The GOP has a real shot at Minnesota, and maybe Maryland (though the Crystal Ball is doubtful about the latter). The sole Republican to bid the Senate goodbye is Majority Leader Bill Frist, and his party probably has a better than even chance of keeping the seat, from a March perspective. (We can see Tennessee Democrat Harold Ford doing well under the right set of circumstances, but that will depend in large part on the nastiness and outcome of the three-way GOP primary for Senate.)

Thus, in the Senate, even more than in the House, Democratic chances of a takeover depend heavily upon the defeat of incumbent Republicans. With a net gain of six seats required to own the Senate, Democrats are facing a steep uphill struggle--again from the perspective of March.

As our readers know, the Crystal Ball enjoys analyzing modern politics from a historical perspective. So let's look back into our storied past, and answer a couple of fascinating questions. Has American midterm politics always been so incumbent-tilted? And has the competition for Congressional seats always been so stilted?

The answer in both cases is a resounding NO. It's worth examining the seat loss in the U.S. House for the President's party in certain midterm elections after the Civil War. There have been plenty of quiet years, with small or modest losses, but your eyes might widen as you glance at these selected results:

Year, President, House Seats Lost by President's Party
1874 Ulysses Grant (R) 96
1890 Benjamin Harrison (R) 85
1894 Grover Cleveland (D) 116
1910 William Taft (R) 57
1914 Woodrow Wilson (D) 59
1922 Warren Harding (R) 75
1930 Herbert Hoover (R) 49
1938 Franklin Roosevelt (D) 71
1942 Franklin Roosevelt (D) 55
1946 Harry Truman (D) 55
1958 Dwight Eisenhower (R) 48
1966 Lyndon Johnson (D) 47
1974 Gerald Ford (R) 48
1994 Bill Clinton (D) 52

Oh, to be a political analyst in 1894! The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing deep recession had condemned the laissez faire Grover Cleveland to deep unpopularity in his second, nonconsecutive term. The massive anti-Democratic results of the 1894 midterm contests signaled the onset of one of the greatest partisan realignments in American history. Two years later, in 1896, Republican William McKinley won a solid victory for President, ending two decades of close, seesaw electoral results and opening a GOP era that would last until the New Deal Democratic realignment of 1930-1934.

Exactly a century after the electoral earthquake of 1894, an intense antipathy to another Democratic President, Bill Clinton, set off the seismometers in the midterm elections of 1994. But will we have to live until 2094 to see the earth move again? The once frequent years with sizeable to enormous House turnovers have become rare indeed. The powers of incumbency are much greater in the television age, when TV is a kind of electronic throne for those already in power. Taxpayer spending is also lavished on modern incumbents for staff, district offices, mailings, and the like. Massive war chests for incumbent reelection campaigns are standard. And pinpoint computer-mapped redistricting that guarantees a long tenure for the majority of congressmen doesn't hurt either. We'll never return to the days of yore, despite our yearnings, but do we really have to be satisfied with the puny shifts of +5 D in 1998 and +6 R in 2002? These recent years were molehills compared to the Mount Everests seen in the table above.