TCS Daily


2006: A Race Odyssey

By Ryan H. Sager - October 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) doth protest too much. In a memo sent out to Republican congressmen earlier this month, Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, tried to quell fears that the 2006 midterm elections will turn into a bloodbath for the GOP.

The president's approval ratings may be at an all time low, and Congress' might be the worst since right before the Gingrich Revolution, but Reynolds' message was simple: "The Democrats say we should be worried. But I am NOT." The capital letters are in the original.

The parallels between 1994 and 2006 keep piling up. Republican denials that there could even possibly be a problem might just be the next piece of the puzzle.

Reynolds makes a couple of solid points as to why Republicans don't have to break out their emergency pants just yet. The Republican congressional committee has three times as much cash on hand as the Democratic congressional committee; and, as the memo boasts, "redistricting has reduced the overall number of truly competitive congressional races."

But he also hauls out a chunk of argument that looks increasingly stale and irrelevant: the idea that though voters are exceedingly upset with Congress as a whole they're still eager to send their own congressmen back to Washington, D.C. Reynolds cites a Pew poll from September showing that 57 percent of Americans would like to see their Congressman returned to office, versus 25 percent who would not.

But if Reynolds or his staff had done any digging into the poll numbers from 1994, he probably wouldn't have cited the Pew poll -- at least not if he wanted to disprove the 1994/2006 connection. Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg did some digging and found that a similarly worded poll from 1994, conducted by Yankelovich Partners, found the exact same breakdown: 57 percent to reelect, 25 percent to throw the bums out.

So, there's no particular reason to believe that voters are any less ready for a change of party in Congress than they were twelve years ago. In fact, another poll (by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research) shows voters preferring Democrats to Republicans by 6 points nationally, even when the question is phrased using the names of their incumbent congressmen.

The question mark then is whether the Democrats will continue in their recently assumed role as the Palestinians of American politics, never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here, at least, Republicans can be forgiven their smug sense of security. Few people can make a question mark look like a period quite like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California's answer to a question nobody asked.

Reynolds hopes that 2006 turns out less like 1994 and more like 1998, another second-term-midterm election. In that race, Congressional Republicans tried to run against Bill Clinton and capitalize on the Lewinsky scandal. They blew it. After setting expectations at a gain of 40 seats, the Republicans saw the Democrats pick up five seats -- and Newt Gingrich's career as speaker came to a close.

The Democrats could easily fall into the trap of running a similar campaign if they decide that "Halliburton," "WMDs" and "Valerie Plame" are the magic incantation that can flip 40 House seats. If they do that, they'll lose, lose badly and deserve to lose badly.

Alternately, they could come up with a sort of Democratic Contract With America -- an idea that James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, among others, are already working on. The Democrats could even begin positioning themselves as the guardians of the federal fisc. Sure, it's hardly a credible stance, given that they're little more than drunken sailors on shore leave. But given the big-bucks bender the Bush administration has been on for five years, the GOP could hardly raise a fuss.

Chances are, though, that the Republicans will muddle through. But, if they're paying attention, they also know that their continued success at this point is owed entirely to their adversaries' inexplicable incompetence. Bush, in this second term, is weak; but Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are like lactose-intolerant kittens.

The real action will likely come in 2008, when conservative Republicans wake up after seven years of Bush and start asking just what it is they got out of it all. Their sleep has been disturbed in the last month or so by Katrina and Harriet, but for now, perhaps, they can be soothed by the sounds of their congressional leadership whistling past the graveyard.

Ryan Sager, a member of the editorial board of The New York Post, is writing a book about the future of the Republican Party. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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