It is a recurrent conceit of Democrats and Republicans alike that a great political re-alignment that will produce a lasting majority lurks just around the corner. In the more than two decades since President Ronald Reagan left the White House, the U.S. electorate has been divided roughly equally.
But when President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, his strategist Karl Rove interpreted the outcome as a harbinger of long-term Republican control. Rove wasn’t alone in this view. With Republicans holding the White House and Congress and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, some Democrats feared that all three branches of government might be irretrievably lost. Instead, the Democrats in 2006 regained both houses of Congress, a prelude to Barack Obama’s election as president two years later.
After the “change election” of 2008 the new fad was that the Democrats were the party of the future and Republicans the party of the past. Democrats and their cheerleaders indulged in puffy analysis about how Republicans were demographically doomed because their base was old, white, and male. In this realignment narrative, Democrats were ascendant because they were the choice of women, gays, younger voters, Latinos and independents.
But with economic recovery stalled and independents disenchanted with the Obama administration, this theory looks increasingly half-baked. No one knows what the future holds, but with less than 80 days to go before the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats are scrambling to hold the House of Representatives and keep Senate losses to a minimum. Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst, expects Republicans to gain between 35 and 45 House seats in November, more probably in the upper range of this forecast. They need 39 to retake the House.
Whether Republicans accomplish this objective, they are poised to make huge gains in statehouses. Democrats now hold 26 of the 50 governorships, with 37 of them on the ballot this year. Stuart Rothenberg, another independent analyst, anticipates that Republicans will pick up eight new governorships, giving them control of 32.
Below the radar screens of these elections, Republicans are also optimistic about gaining seats in the 88 legislative chambers (of a total of 99) for which there are elections in 2010. These legislative elections will determine which party holds the upper hand in the 2011 congressional and legislative reapportionments that will be based on the 2010 census. Several legislative bodies are closely balanced, among them the Texas House of Representatives, which Republicans control by a two-seat margin. Texas is the largest prize in the redistricting sweepstakes; it will gain four additional House seats (for a total of 36) because of population increases.
Republicans are favored to hold the Texas House and are in no apparent danger of losing any other legislative body they now control. Democrats in contrast are playing defense in attempting to hold onto at least a dozen chambers.
“It looks dark for the Democrats,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst for the National Council of State Legislatures, or NCSL. “They are the victims of their own success.”
Storey observes that the Democrats won heavily in the legislative elections of 2006 and 2008, putting them in control of many marginal districts. Now, with the pendulum swinging back, Republicans stand to gain some 500 legislative seats, most of which were lost in the two previous elections. Especially crucial in terms of congressional redistricting are the New York Senate, the Ohio House and the Pennsylvania House, all of which shifted narrowly to the Democrats in the 2008 election. Republicans also have opportunities to win control of the Alabama Senate and House (controlled by Democrats since the 1870s), the Indiana House, and both the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly.
In governors’ races the outlook for Republicans appears similarly bright. August surveys give GOP candidates big leads in races for open Democratic governorships in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming and also in Iowa, where a Democratic incumbent is running. Republicans hold smaller leads in gubernatorial races in five other presently Democratic states: Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Democrats are expected to pick up governorships in Connecticut and Hawaii, where Republicans are retiring.
If the anticipated outcomes occur in all these races, Republicans would gain nine seats and Democrats two for a net Republican gain of seven. But two caveats apply. The first of these is a maxim of Richard Harwood, my late, great editor at The Washington Post: “Twenty-four hours is a long time in the life of a politician.” The second is that there are eight open governorships — four Republican and four Democratic — that are too close to call in any of the polls.
The closest of these mystery states is California, where Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown are vying to replace moderate Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democrats have a huge statewide registration edge, which favors Brown. Whitman, who has spent more than $100 million and plans to spend another $50 million more, has the financial advantage, critical in the nation’s most populous state, where political parties are weak and television advertising often decisive. Polls show the race within the margin of error.
Democrats are assured of continued control of the Legislature in a state were congressional and legislative districts are at once lopsidedly Democratic and notoriously gerrymandered. California’s legislators tend to regard voters as an inconvenience and carve up the districts to protect themselves.
“The real contests are in the primaries, where turnout is low, and the proportion of liberal voters on the Democratic side and conservative voters on the Republican side is high,” observed Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable.
Hauck, who has served as a key aide to a Democratic Assembly speaker and a Republican governor, notes that California’s persistent gerrymandering discourages moderates from running. The lack of such moderates in either party has contributed to the recurrent dysfunction of the Legislature, particularly on fiscal matters. In 2008, California voters approved a ballot measure to take legislative redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and vest this power in an independent commission. Legislators, outraged by this presumption of the voters, are trying to regain control this year with an initiative that would do away with the commission. Also on the ballot is an initiative that heads in the opposite direction by transferring congressional redistricting, now done by the Legislature, to a nonpartisan commission.
The party in power in the White House has lost ground in all but two midterm elections since 1900. Most political analysis, however, tends to focus less on such historical patterns than on the big picture of presidents and their policies. Viewed through this prism, support for the Republican Party collapsed after Bush’s re-election in 2004 because of his unpopular attempt to privatize Social Security, perceived federal ineptitude in response to Hurricane Katrina, lingering public anxiety over the Iraq War, and ultimately the financial implosion.
Similarly, the Democrats’ current plight is blamed on Obama’s sagging job approval ratings, which in turn reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the insipid economic recovery, uncertainty about the new health-care plan, and concern about the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.
All this is true as far as it goes, but the temporal political fortunes of presidents are not necessarily portents of permanent change.
“If Republicans gain 500 legislative seats, it will be a big victory for them, but they’ll just be back to even,” observed NSCL analyst Storey. In the words of the French proverb, if it’s once again permissible to quote the French: The more things change, the more they remain the same. For better or for worse, our country is pretty evenly divided.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.