Following their disastrous 30-seat loss to the Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans expressed the hope that many if not most of those seats might revert back to the GOP side of the ledger in 2008. The thinking went that many of those seats were in solidly Republican districts and only the lower turnout occasioned by the off-year election cycle was at fault for the loss of so many close races.
There was even talk of the GOP regaining control of Congress if they caught a little luck and put up some good candidates in open seats where no incumbent would be running due to death or retirement.
But then came the scramble for the exits among House Republicans and that vision proved to be nothing but a mirage. Like a bunch of theatergoers leaving at the end of the second act of a really bad show, a parade of GOP Congressmen appeared before the cameras, and one by one over the ensuing months announced their retirement. The list grew to include 22 members — many of them long-serving Congressmen who found themselves facing a well funded, and enthusiastic Democratic challenger for the first time in many years.
Some apparently just didn’t have to the stomach for a tough general election campaign. Many more didn’t like the idea of being a backbencher of a minority party. Still others leave disillusioned and dispirited — casualties of a broken system where pork barrel politics and influence peddling is rewarded while the right thing can be frowned upon.
In addition to the 22 GOP House members who are retiring, another 12 are leaving for a variety of reasons including death, running for higher office or, like Dennis Hastert (R-IL), resigning prior to the end of their term.
That means there will be 34 seats previously held by a Republican in play for the Democrats. The Democrats have a total of six members who will not be coming back next year.
The math is frightening. With 28 seats up for grabs in 2008 on top of the 18 seat majority currently held by Democrats, there is a very good chance that Democrats, for all practical purposes, could win enough seats this year that the GOP would be a minority party for the next decade — and perhaps beyond. When 98% of incumbents in the House are victorious and redistricting looms in 2012, the chances of Republicans overcoming a 40 or 50-seat Democratic majority in the next couple of election cycles are slim.
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.