The problems for the GOP in the House are illustrated best by examining the huge gap in fundraising by the rival campaign committees. For the first time in two decades, Democrats are outstripping Republicans in raising money. Having raised a whopping $67.5 million last year for House races, the Democrats have cash on hand at the end of April totaling $45.3 million. The Republicans have only $6.7 million on hand. And beyond that, 26 of those members not returning to Congress next year had political action committees that raised money for other Republican candidates. When you lose around $17 million in potential contributions to challengers in tight races, you know you’re in trouble.
Worse than that, the GOP is missing something else vital to winning political races: viable candidates.
Take Ilinois, for example: there are two races that feature vulnerable Democrats and no GOP challenger was recruited to face them. Nationwide, the Democrats see 29 tough races and only 19 of those have a challenger they deem “credible.”
Of the 30 House seats that changed hands in 2006, Republicans have targeted only 16 of them.
On paper, it would appear that the GOP should be in better shape. There are 60 districts held by Democrats where George Bush won a majority of votes in 2004. Many of those districts were carried easily by Bush — more than 55% of the vote.
But the reality for Republicans is that Bush’s margin of victory was largely supplied by independents. And those voters deserted the GOP in droves in 2006 and show no sign of wanting to vote for a Republican House member in 2008. In fact, in three special elections in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi where the GOP lost previously safe seats, independents voted by huge margins for the Democrat.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in all of these dark clouds, I can’t help you. Even with approval ratings for Congress lower than at any time in American history, it doesn’t seem to be rubbing off on the Democrats. Voters aren’t stupid. They know who was in charge from 1994 to 2006 and are not in a forgiving mood. And it doesn’t help that the approval ratings for President Bush aren’t much better than those for Congress. How the unpopularity of the president affects congressional races is unknown except that it seems logical that the reason Democrats hold a decided advantage in party identification — 38-27 — can at least partly be laid at the president’s feet.
You can’t really blame the 22 GOP House members who have decided to hang it up. Many are moderates who no longer feel quite as welcome in a more conservative party where committee assignments and other perks don’t seem to come their way. Some feel it’s time to think about their families’ future and will take a position in private industry making 5 times as much or more as they currently take home in Congressional pay.
Whatever the reason — and a few, like Rick Renzi of Arizona, are leaving under an ethics cloud — they are leaving a party that appears to be in decline, badly in need of fresh blood and fresh ideas.
But who knows? A few years in the political wilderness and the GOP might learn some valuable lessons on how to manage the government without bankrupting the rest of us. Perhaps then they would be ready to return to power; chastened and wiser for their time spent in purgatory.