Until recently, Republicans were taking solace in a number of things as they looked forward to 2012. For one, Republicans knew that the party not holding the White House rarely suffered large House and Senate losses in presidential reelection years.
In fact, the only time that has happened in recent history was to Republicans in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won the White House a year after the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Republicans also took comfort in knowing that they would control redistricting efforts in states with 202 congressional districts, compared to Democrats who have control over the lines in states with just 47 districts.
The huge Republican redistricting gains many had predicted before the new year appear less likely today. Republicans will be able to protect a number of their freshmen in redistricting, but Democrats could reap a bonanza of new seats in Illinois and possibly in Florida and California, if new processes in those two jackpots play out as Democrats believe they will.
In the end, the GOP’s remapping gains might not be large enough to offset losses among some of the more exotic and problematic freshmen who won narrowly in swing districts.
Finally, Republicans have had even more reason to feel secure since redistricting was occurring the year after a huge wave benefited them, and Democrats have to win 25 seats for control in the House to flip.
For Republicans, it seemed that they could only lose their majority if the party nominated someone for president who was toxic with independent voters like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, neither of whom is likely to win.
However, talking with Republican pollsters, strategists and veteran campaign professionals recently, I now hear sounds of concern that haven’t been heard in almost two years.
Among the worries the party now has is that a government shutdown could get blamed on the GOP. Additionally, these party insiders believe that taking on entitlements, specifically Medicare, could jeopardize the party’s hold on the House, its strong chances of taking the Senate and the stronghold that the party has been established with older white voters—not coincidentally, Medicare recipients.
It’s clear that the Republican congressional leadership believes that a shutdown is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. These are intelligent and reasonable people who have studied the mistakes Republicans made after they took control of Congress in 1994. They are determined not to replicate those mistakes.
While the GOP has worked hard to bring their freshmen and more ideological members around to the realities of politics, these freshmen and other rank-and-file members are getting pressure from back home not to compromise with Democrats.
These constituents don’t want any more short-term deals, and their pressure is offsetting the efforts by the party’s leadership to do things step by step so as to not jeopardize the party’s chances for gains in the Senate.
Part of what is happening is that there is a giant gap between the attitudes of Republican base voters and those who are swing voters.
The GOP base is reflecting the views and values of tea party voters who stormed the town meetings of Democratic members in 2009 and 2010.
These individuals believe the budget can be balanced with cuts in discretionary domestic spending and some believe that cuts in entitlements should be done immediately while the irons of the 2010 midterm elections are still hot.
But for independent voters, the 2010 elections were not about slashing government spending; rather, they were a reaction to what they saw as an over-reach by President Obama and the Democratic Congress.
These between-the-40-yard-line-voters didn’t like the economic stimulus package, climate change legislation or health care reform. They voted against Democrats and what Democrats were trying to do, but they did not embrace the budgetary slash-and-burn politics that is the embodiment of the tea party movement.
The disparity between the views of the GOP base and independent voters couldn’t be stronger.
Look no further than late February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff.
On the question, “Do you think government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people or do you think government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals?” 75 percent of Republicans thought government was trying to do too much while 27 percent thought government should do more.
But among independents, 51 percent thought government should do more, with 47 percent saying government was trying to do too much.
While those numbers among independents are effectively tied, they are a far cry from the 60-38 percent of independents who thought government was trying to do too much in the mid-October, preelection poll and a lot more like the numbers that existed in spring 2009, before Democratic prospects began to nosedive. That poll was conducted February 24-28 among 1,000 adults and has a 3-point error margin, larger among sub-groups.
It is much too early to suggest that the Republican majority in the House is in danger, but the sequence of events that Democrats would need to have a legitimate chance are so far looking increasingly plausible.
Keep in mind the volatility we have seen in the three previous elections. Independent voters swung heavily in favor of Democrats in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, those same independent voters went in the opposite direction to push Republicans forward. If something happens in three consecutive elections, who wants to say that a fourth time is inconceivable?
This article appears in the April 5, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.