Last week’s smartest observation came from Steven Law, the president and CEO of the Republican uber-PAC American Crossroads after Republicans lost the special congressional election in New York’s 26th District.
Law said, “What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year.” Law is a former campaign manager and chief of staff to the most cold-blooded of Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He did that before directing the National Republican Congressional Committee and later working as general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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Democrats who were so badly battered last year desperately want to see the special election results as having seismic import, ignoring angles and odd corners that three- and four-way special elections often have.
The total Democratic and Green Party vote was 48 percent, so more than half of the votes cast were for the Republican and tea party candidates. The argument that a significant number of tea party voters would have voted Democratic, absent their candidate, is unconvincing.
But you don’t have to look far to sense that congressional Republicans have stepped in a deep pile of manure with their embrace of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher program. Yet they seem to want to avoid looking at their shoes. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said as much he was promptly branded a heretic and forced to apologize.
Law’s observation and polling indicates the forward momentum Republicans enjoyed in 2009 and 2010 is over. We are in a jump-ball situation. Polling metrics show neither side with a meaningful edge in terms of favorability, generic ballot test, or party identification. It’s not that Democrats have gained ground but that Republicans have dropped to their level.
While Ryan deserves credit for his willingness to step forward and get the conversation started on entitlements, he did his party no service.
With the pressing budget and debt ceiling fights, the Republican House majority already had its hands full. With Republicans holding just 47 Senate seats and a Democrat in the White House, the proposal had no chance of enactment during this Congress.
But tossing the plan on the table with little groundwork, with the public not prepped for the fight, amounted to a political self-indulgence that the GOP could not afford, exposing GOP members to attack and handing Democrats an issue when they really didn’t have one before.
But it’s one thing for Republicans to lose their momentum and a special election and another to suggest that Democrats have even a fair chance of winning 24 seats to recapture the House.
There is no historical precedent for the party of a president seeking reelection scoring a net gain of more than 15 seats; presidential re-election coattails do not exist. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats only picked up 11 seats in 1936, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans lost two in 1956; Republicans under Richard Nixon picked up 12 seats in 1972 and 14 seats in 1984 under Ronald Reagan.
In the last two reelection years, Democrats gained nine seats in 1996 under Bill Clinton and Republicans three in 2004 under George W. Bush. Only with the victory of an unelected incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, just over a year after the assassination of John Kennedy, has there been a significant gain, in that case 37 seats.
But aside from history, it’s not easy to see how Democrats get to 24. Sure, there are 61 seats in Republican hands that were in districts won by President Obama in 2008, but the political climate that year represented a high water mark for Obama and for Democrats.
Even if Obama is reelected, it’s unlikely to be as big a win as the last one.
Besides, while Republicans are unlikely to score big gains off of redistricting, their enhanced strength in governorships and more importantly state legislatures last year are likely to result in the ability to shore up many weak districts.
Democrats might score a big win in Illinois, but they need about five or six more opportunities like that one and there aren’t likely to be any. The Texas map unveiled on Tuesday only makes their path more difficult.
Once redistricting is completed, the metric to look for might be how many Republicans, particularly freshmen, are representing districts that were won or almost won by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004—a better marker for vulnerability than Obama’s districts.
While 25 years ago, senior citizens represented one of the strongest elements of the Democratic base, that age cohort today is the one that rapidly defected from the Democratic fold.
The seniors who grew up in homes with pictures of Roosevelt and Kennedy are mostly gone. Today’s seniors had their formative political years with Jimmy Carter and Reagan in the White House and have a different perspective on the two parties and government.
Ryan’s proposal puts some of them in play, though.
If Democrats can continue to make his Medicare proposal an effective issue, it will represent an important test for the GOP. If the advantage stays with Democrats, it is a sure sign the Ryan proposal was a huge mistake. And if that happens, then you can say Democrats have a realistic chance of taking a majority in the House.
This article appears in the June 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.