In Tough Environment, GOP Seats at Risk

John C. Fortier
Research Fellow
John C. Fortier
Last week, House Republicans woke up and realized how bad the fall election looks for them. John McCain, no favorite of the GOP caucus, masks the party's problems. He runs significantly ahead of his party and has a shot at winning in a toxic environment, while congressional Republicans are sure to lose ground. So how bad could it be for Republicans in the House?

The moment of revelation was Mississippi, the third special election loss in a heavily Republican district. Then came Virginia Rep. Tom Davis' memo, laying out in stark terms the depth of Republicans' problems: Every generic indicator points significantly in the Democratic direction, the Republican brand name is in the tank, the president is toxic, and as the congressman told Peggy Noonan, most Republicans are unaware of the problem or any solution and likened their situation to an "airplane flying into a mountain."

One should not take Davis' warning lightly. He presided over the National Republican Congressional Committee for two campaigns, keeping Republicans in the majority.

A 20-seat loss would be remarkable.

Davis' bottom-line warning is that Republicans could lose another 20 seats in the House.

A 20-seat loss would be remarkable. The last time either party gained 20 or more seats two elections in a row was when Republicans gained 28 seats in the 1950 midterm election, followed by another 22 in 1952, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman. President Bush often likes to compare himself to Truman, a hard-nosed leader who was more appreciated in the long run. But the Harry Truman of the 1950s was an unpopular figure and a drag on his party. Both Bush and Truman presided over long and unpopular wars, and they are the only presidents to have very low job approval ratings persisting for several years straight.

Twenty seats would also be a remarkable result because, in recent years, Republicans and Democrats have sorted themselves out, and most members sit in very safe seats. Normally, a congressional district like that represented by Roger Wicker before his appointment to the Senate--which Republicans just lost in a special election and which President Bush won with 62 percent of the vote in 2004--is rock-solid safe. Even in the watershed year of 2006, out of the 31 seats Democrats won from Republicans, only three were in districts that Bush had won with at least 62 percent of the vote in 2004. And one of those was the Texas district vacated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which was affected by scandal as well as the fact that the Republican candidate did not appear on the ballot and had to be written in.

If we were to take the 62 percentage points as an indicator of how strong Democratic sentiments are, that would put in danger 123 of the 199 Republicans in the caucus. Even if every Republican in a district that Bush won by 55 percentage points or fewer is in trouble, then 48 members could be in for tough races.

Even if the tide is that high, not all Republicans in those districts will be washed out. Just as McCain might be able to overcome a generic Democratic advantage, so will Republicans like Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, who sits in the most Democratic district held by a Republican (Bush lost Delaware 46 percent to 53 percent in 2004).

Just looking at the 48 districts that Bush won with 55 percent of the vote or less, 10 of them are open seats, which are especially vulnerable. Incumbents in this category include scandal-plagued GOP Rep. Vito J. Fossella of New York. The category also includes 15 Republicans who won their own elections with less than 55 percent of the vote: Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Charles W. Dent (Pa.), Phil English (Pa.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Robin Hayes (N.C.), Ric Keller (Fla.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Joseph Knollenberg (Mich.), Thaddeus G. McCotter (Mich.), Jon C. Porter (Nev.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Peter J. Roskam (Ill.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Tim Walberg (Mich.).

It is true that the most vulnerable Republicans were beaten in 2006, and in general those who survived are stronger campaigners and are running in more-GOP-friendly districts than did their fallen colleagues of two years ago. But the generic Democratic advantage in the election at this point is at least as large as it was in the 2006 election. If this persists until November, Republicans may find themselves losing 40 percent of these 48 seats, or close to 20 overall.

On the other side of the ledger, Republicans have a greater chance of picking off a few Democratic seats in 2008 than they did in 2006--especially among freshmen who won marginal districts that year, in the open seats being vacated by Reps. Darlene Hooley (Ore.) and Bud Cramer (Ala.), and possibly against a couple of entrenched incumbents. But the generic Democratic advantage will help these candidates as well. Republicans can at best hope to pick up five or six seats from this group of Democratic districts.

Perhaps Davis' scenario of a net loss of 20 seats is a bit on the high side, but after the 2006 elections, there was talk of winning back districts and maybe even regaining control of the House. Now, Republicans hope they can get out of 2008 with a larger minority caucus than they had in the 103rd Congress (176 Republicans), before the Gingrich revolution of 1994.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.

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