Monday, October 16, 2006

The Fight for Congress: I’ve Seen This Movie Before

By Stuart Rothenberg

Three weeks ago, some people were talking about a Republican surge that never really existed. Now, others mistakenly are talking as if the page scandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) hasfundamentally changed the election cycle. It hasn’t. What we are seeing, increasingly, is 1994, with the parties reversed.

The midterm elections overwhelmingly remain a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Congress. The Foley scandal makes it more difficult for GOP candidates across the country to cut through the media coverage of the controversy and to localize their races and discredit their Democratic opponents. But the Republicans were in a hole even before the most recent flap.

Clearly, the scandal has allowed Democrats to return to the party’s “culture of corruption” argument that it largely dropped during the summer. That feeds into the Democrats’ larger “change” argument, an argument that apparently resonates with voters who disapprove of the job the president and Congress are doing, and who think that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Democrats now deserve to be solid favorites to win control of the House of Representatives. They already have six to nine GOP seats in the bag, with another two dozen serious opportunities.

The fallout from the Foley scandal does increase the possible size of an already substantial Democratic wave. That means that low second- and third-tier Democratic challengers must now be taken more seriously, and it increases the chances that entrenched Republicans in marginal districts — even those without particularly credible Democratic opponents — could find themselves in jeopardy on Nov. 7.

The problem for Republican Members of Congress is that the election cycle isn’t about them as individuals, or their opponents. It’s a referendum on the president and the direction of the country. True, the GOP still has more than three weeks to “localize” individual House and Senate races, but the burden remains on Republican candidates to change the focus of the midterms.

The major impact of the Foley scandal potentially is to further depress Republican turnout. If turnout is down, it also will increase Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate. Republican prospects in both Virginia and Tennessee have eroded, and while Democrats Jim Webb (Va.) and Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) still have plenty of work to do to win their Senate contests, both races clearly have become competitive.

Personally, I’m skeptical about all of the talk about evangelical voters deserting the GOP in droves, and I thought David Kirkpatrick hit the nail on the head in Monday’s New York Times.

For most evangelicals, politics is about where the two parties stand on cultural issues, not whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) goes to church, whether Foley has a serious personal problem or whether the Republican Congressional leadership mishandled the page scandal issue. Still, overall turnout is a big GOP problem because of the president’s and Congress’ standing, and that includes evangelical Republicans.

No matter what the final results, Republicans will suffer serious losses next month. Losing just a dozen House seats would be a resounding victory for the GOP, since losses in excess of 20 seats are possible. In the Senate, most Republicans would be content if the party loses only four or five seats, thereby keeping control.

If Republicans lose even one chamber of Congress, I expect allies of the president to cite Congressional GOP scandals and paint the results as a rejection of Capitol Hill Republicans, not of President Bush. If that’s ultimately the White House line, I hope nobody swallows it.

Clearly, the elections so far have been, and continue to be, about Bush and the administration’s performance, not about the GOP Congressional leadership. And if Republicans get spanked by voters, it won’t be the fault of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is once again doing everything it can, given the cards that it holds.

But with Bush still having two years left to govern, the White House is going to have to try to pass the buck, and the blame, to Foley, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and anyone else it can think of. And that won’t be the extent of the GOP infighting. You can bet that conservatives will complain that moderate voters proved unreliable, just as you can expect moderates to complain that conservatives were intolerant and too ideological.

The 2006 elections increasingly resemble those of 1994, when Republicans ran as the party of change against then-President Bill Clinton. This cycle, Democrats are running to check Bush much as Republicans ran against Clinton a dozen years ago. Unpopular presidents tend to produce difficult, often disastrous, midterms for the party in power. That’s what is happening to the GOP this year, pure and simple.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 12, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.