Potentially enduring impact of GOP wave in U.S. House
The 2010 congressional midterms produced a historic Republican wave in which the party gained more than 60 new seats. But with a higher-turnout presidential election looming in 2012, will the party keep them or will it lose them as quickly as the Democrats surrendered their gains of 2006-09?
Those Democrat gains were fleeting in large part because they encroached far into Republican territory. The 39-seat Democrat house majority that evaporated this week included 34 seats with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+6 or higher, which means that they were six or more percentage points more Republican than the national average in the past two presidential elections. And 18 more Democrat-held seats were rated from R+3 to R+5. These 52 Republican-leaning seats in Democrat hands were more than enough to change control of the House, as Republicans picked off 40 of them.
There are a couple of ways that’s important. First, the party was able to utilize the wave to eliminate many Democrat congressmen whose personal appeal had allowed them to keep their Republican districts in Democrat hands for many years. Republicans’ success in nationalizing the midterms to direct voters’ focus on an unpopular president and congress and away from what they liked about their representative allowed the GOP to root out these interlopers who were regularly reelected in ordinary election years. These included Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Chet Edwards of Texas (both of whom had held down R+20 districts), Missouri’s 34-year veteran Ike Skelton (R+14), Lincoln Davis of Tennessee (R+13), Rick Boucher of Virginia (R+11), Jim Marshall of Georgia and North Dakota’s Earl Pomeroy (both R+10). Rising Democrat star Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin of South Dakota (R+9) was replaced by Palinesque rising GOP star Kristi Noem. The congressional careers of freshman Democrats who could have established a frustrating foothold if reelected, like Idaho’s Walt Minnick (R+18), Alabama’s Bobby Bright (R+16) and Frank Kratovil from Maryland’s conservative eastern shore (R+13), were nipped in the bud.
Second, the new GOP majority is solidly rooted in districts that are inclined to continue voting Republican. When Democrats rode their own wave into control of Congress in 2006-08, their gains included the elimination of long-serving Republicans who had held Democrat districts for years, such Connecticut’s Rob Simmons and Chris Shays. Notably this year’s Republican wave failed to reclaim those seats. When Democrats seek to reassert their authority in 2012, armed with likely legions of the same Democrat-leaning infrequent voters that powered President Obama into office in 2008, the GOP will be better positioned to withstand the Democrat onslaught than vulnerable Democrats were in this year’s election. Having lost three of their four most Democrat-rated remaining seats this election, Republicans’ most Democratic seat in the new congress is the Illinois seat (D+7) vacated by Senator-elect Mark Kirk and retained by Republican Robert Dold. Only 10 Republican seats in the new congress are rated D+3 or worse, fewer than the 12 Democrat seats rated R+3 or better.
Of course, Democrats demonstrated in 2006-08 that they can win R+ seats when Republicans don’t perform as voters want. In order to take advantage of the fundamentals I have discussed, Republicans must use their congressional control to cut taxes and spending, facilitate an environment conducive to job creation and economic success, and demonstrate an independence from earmarks and pork.