Thursday, February 08, 2007

Can Republicans Count on a House Snapback?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Most surge elections, during which one party makes sweeping gains in the House of Representatives at the expense of the opposition, have been followed by a surge back toward the other party two years later.

Will the 2006 elections produce the same snapback, with substantial Republican gains, or can Democrats minimize their losses, securing their control of the House after next year’s presidential election?

The history of recent surges and snapbacks is pretty clear. In 1964, during the Democrats’ anti-Goldwater surge, Democrats knocked off 39 GOP incumbents and won eight Republican open seats. Two years later, the Republicans snapped back, defeating 39 Democratic incumbents.

The wave that accompanied Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, which ousted 27 Democratic officeholders and secured 10 Democratic open seats for the GOP, beget 1982, when 22 GOP incumbents were bounced from office. And the wave against President Bill Clinton in 1994, which took down 34 Democratic House Members and turned a stunning 22 Democratic open seats red, produced 1996, when 18 GOP incumbents lost bids for re-election.

Snapbacks are not inevitable, of course. In the Watergate year of 1974, Democrats knocked off 36 Republican House Members seeking re-election and seized 13 GOP open seats, and two years later the parties lost almost equal numbers of incumbents (seven Democrats and five Republicans). Republican seats that went Democratic because of Watergate generally stayed that way for at least a couple of elections.

In November, Democrats knocked off 22 GOP incumbents and added eight Republican open seats. That means that the number of Republican incumbents defeated in their bids for re-election in 2006, while substantial, was below (and in some cases well below) the number of incumbents defeated in earlier waves.

In the three snapback elections mentioned above, the party that lost a large number of incumbents one year knocked off at least half as many of the opposition’s incumbents two years later. Sometimes the snapback was even stronger, as in 1964 and 1966, when equal numbers of incumbents lost in consecutive elections.

But none of the examples noted above is exactly replicated in the scenario for 2006 and 2008. Both the 1964 and 1980 waves occurred in presidential years, which meant that the snapbacks occurred during a midterm election. The 2006 wave occurred in a midterm year, and any snapback, if there is one, would take place in a presidential year.

One wave/snapback sequence — 1994 and 1996 — did occur in a midterm election, followed by a presidential year. But 1994 was Clinton’s first midterm election, while 2006 was President Bush’s second, and that’s a significant difference for many reasons. For instance, Clinton was able to run again and remake himself after only two years in office.

Moreover, the Iraq War was crucial in contributing to the formation of a Democratic wave in 2006, creating an environment that is unique in the recent history of surges.

The war could continue to pose problems for the Republicans in 2008, and if so, that would minimize the chances of a snapback. Even though Bush will not be on the ballot in 2008, he still could be a factor that undercuts the appeal of his party and enhances Democratic prospects up and down the ballot. If independents continue to reject the GOP, Republican candidates will have a hard time reclaiming districts that they lost last year.

The possibility of a GOP snapback also is minimized by the nature of the ’06 wave. Almost half of the districts that turned from Republican to Democratic are either competitive or Democratic-leaning, and as long as the freshman Democrats in those districts don’t stumble badly, history suggests that they will be difficult to dislodge.

Former Republican Congressmen Charles Bass (N.H.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Michael Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Sue Kelly (N.Y.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Anne Northup (Ky.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Clay Shaw (Fla.) didn’t lose because they were terrible candidates. They lost because they were in marginal seats or in districts carried by Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. It will be very difficult (though obviously not impossible) for the GOP to retake those districts, even if former Members run again for their former seats.

It also seems unlikely that GOP open seats that went Democratic in November in Iowa, Colorado, New York and Arizona suddenly will snapback to the Republicans.

So where are snapbacks most likely?

Republican chances of reclaiming seats lost in 2006 undoubtedly are strongest in fundamentally Republican and conservative districts. That means that Democratic House freshmen such as Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Nick Lampson (Texas), Tim Mahoney (Fla.) and possibly Jerry McNerney (Calif.) are at greatest risk.

In addition, a couple of Democratic incumbents who almost lost despite the strong wind at their backs — Georgia Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall — surely have to consider themselves at considerable risk.

Obviously, the presidential contest will have a strong impact on the election year, as will the Democratic Congress’ performance, party fundraising, candidate recruitment and retirements. We won’t know for months which party will have the edge in House races in 2008, but it’s likely that divided government will make it difficult to oust incumbents — and that should improve Democrats’ chances of maintaining their House majority in next year’s elections.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 5, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.