Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the United States Senate, with only forty-nine Democratic senators and two independents that caucus with the Democrats. Similarly, they won 233—around 54%—of the seats in the House in 2006; a mere swing of sixteen would cost them the majority. Despite what appears to be structural potential for Republicans to retake Congress in the next election cycle, the state of the electoral map suggests exactly otherwise: that losses borne by Republicans in 2006, even beyond those for the House and Senate, will prevent Republicans from winning majorities for years to come.
Although Democrats call their wins in Congress in 2006 “historic,” their thirty-seat win in the House came nowhere near the fifty-four seat swap that Republicans managed in 1994. The cornerstone of Republican wins in 1994 was taking a decisive majority of seats that were left open by retiring Democratic incumbents, many of whom were embattled in the bank scandals. In 2006, members of Republican leadership, such as then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, were credited with encouraging fellow Republicans to seek re-election to prevent more open seats that could have advantaged Democrats, thereby blunting the number of seats that could have been lost.
In 2008, however, already greater numbers of Republican incumbents from vulnerable districts, many of whom were serving in the minority for the first time, have announced that they will retire rather than seek re-election. Included in this category are Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, who is retiring, and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who is leaving her House seat to run for Senate. Both Pryce and Wilson barely squeaked past 50% in 2006 in two of the closest races in the country. Still other Republicans, including Reps. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, Jerry Weller of Illinois, and Ralph Regula of Ohio will be retiring in suburban districts nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, where Democrats can yield top-tier candidates.
Still others, like Bill Young of Florida and Tom Davis of Virginia, could choose to leave evenly divided districts to retire or seek a different office, causing the number of open seats to grow. Because the wave of retirements that allowed the Republicans to take the majority in 1994 did not happen for Democrats in 2006, some consider Democratic wins in 2006 to be a two-part cycle that will conclude with Republican retirements in 2008, which could cause Democrats to win nearly as many seats in 2008 as they already did in 2006.
These trends should be especially troubling for Republicans because the lines of House districts drawn for the 2000’s were drawn in Republicans’ favor to either defend Republican incumbents or add to the Republican majority. Congressional district lines are drawn by state legislatures with governors’ approval, and in 2006, Republicans lost control of three state senates, six state assemblies, and six governorships. For the first time since 1994, Democrats now hold a majority of the nation’s governors. When the 2010 census gives states the ability to redraw the lines of the House of Representatives districts, Democrats will have much greater power to influence those lines than they did for the 2000 census, entrenching Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008.
Thinking strategically, to have the best chance at retaking the House, Republicans should focus on retaking state legislatures and governorships to redraw lines from the 2020 census in their favor.
On the other side of the Capitol building, Republicans are in many ways both closer to and farther from retaking the Senate. Of the thirty-three senators elected in 2006, Republicans were only able to take nine. This was especially damaging because Democrats already held a majority of Senate seats in the 2006 cycle, because 2000, the last year those seats were up for election, was a good year for Democrats. The next two election cycles, in 2008 and in 2010, follow on elections held for those cycles in 2002 and in 2004, which were both extremely strong years for Republicans. For example, of senators up for election in 2008, Republicans have to defend twenty-two seats, while Democrats need only defend twelve, giving them a far greater opportunity to go on the offensive. Indeed, the only seats held by Democrats that are considered even marginally competitive are in South Dakota and Louisiana, while Republicans are either already the underdog or at least face credible challenges in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, and others.
Further, Republican senators also face the problem of retirements: for the first time since 1958, one party, the Republicans, has five more open seats from retirements than the other party. In 1958, Republicans also had five more open seats to defend than the Democrats, who ended up taking thirteen seats from Republicans that year. No Democrat up for election in 2008 has announced a retirement, while Republicans in Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia all have.
Because Republicans have Senate cycles coming up in 2008 and 2010 where they will have far more seats to defend than Democrats, they will have scarce opportunity to retake the majority. On the other hand, when 2012 comes around, it is the Democrats who will be on the defense. Republicans will have plenty of opportunities in a cycle in which they only have nine seats to defend.
Prospects for Republicans to retake the majority in Congress look slim for the remainder of the decade. As a result, Republican campaign organizations should adopt a defensive strategy to merely cope through the coming cycles. The most urgent area to go on the offensive is races for state legislatures and governors. If Republicans can take back more state legislatures and governors’ mansions, they will have a stronger hand to redraw congressional district lines in their favor in 2010. Still, opportunities to retake the majority will not come until 2012 at the earliest. As part of the defensive strategy, national organizations need to use their resources wisely while rebuilding their infrastructure, concentrating on only very competitive races, such as one waged by former state Assemblyman Dean Andal against local Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, who indeed represents a Republican district. Spreading resources too thin could make the road back to a Republican majority even longer than it already is.