Congressional Quarterly: Democrats to Gain More Seats in 2008

It would be nice to double or triple the Blue representation in OC by 2008.

Nov. 25, 2007 – 4:39 p.m.

It’s Looking Like Blue Skies All Over Again

By Bob Benenson and Jonathan Allen, CQ Staff

Just over a year ago, Democrats seized control of Congress because of the voters’ exhaustion with the war in Iraq and disgust at the Republican majority’s increasingly brazen manipulation of the levers of power. Now, less than a year from the next election, little has happened to elevate the voters’ mood — or their impression of the party that ruled the federal government from 2003 through 2006.

The GOP remains burdened with a highly unpopular war; President Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq, initiated over strong Democratic objections, appears to have diminished the violence but has given no sign that it will lead to a big reduction in U.S. troops anytime soon. The corruption scandals, ethical challenges and settled Beltway mentality that helped drive Republicans into the wilderness have yet to dissolve from public memory.

So, even if Democrats have done little to burnish a reputation for running things any better — as reflected in the extraordinarily low public approval ratings for the Congress they now control — the fact remains: They may not have to.

That’s because every traditional indicator of election forecasting — from public opinion polls and issue resonance to candidate recruitment and the “over/under” balance of seats in play — suggests that congressional Democrats have just as much going for them in 2008 as they had in 2006, if not more. They now have the power of incumbency to give them added advantages in raising money, attracting top-tier candidates, controlling the legislative agenda and capturing the political zeitgeist.

All this leads Democrats to profess clear confidence that they’ll retain majority control next fall. And not only that, but they may now harbor realistic visions of emerging with 55 to 58 seats in the Senate (pushing them within arm-twisting distance of the 60 votes needed to bust a filibuster) as well more than 240 seats in the House, a cushion that neither party has enjoyed since the end of the last Democratic era in the House, in 1994.

In fact, it’s now dawning on members of both parties that a Democratic sweep — with gains in Congress accompanied by a reclaiming of the White House — is the inescapable “morning line” assumption going into the 2008 campaign season. By early March at the latest, Democrats are likely to have a presumed presidential nominee who will enjoy consensus front-runner status going into the general election campaign. That will give them a titular leader for the first time in seven years and the opportunity to unite behind a single party message throughout the remainder of the year.

Republicans, meanwhile, appear destined for a yearlong internecine battle for the heart and soul of the party. Even if they manage to rally behind a single presidential candidate next spring, it is not at all clear that any of the leading candidates for the nomination can count on the loyal and enthusiastic support of evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who have formed the bedrock of the GOP “base” for more than a quarter-century.

So many Democrats are already starting to dream what they might do, come January 2009, with simultaneous control of the Capitol and the White House for the first time in 14 years. “If — and these are big ifs — if we run the table, I think there’s a tremendous amount of pent-up energy to move the agenda we have been outlining for years,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts.

Two Roads to Run DownOf course, the political tides can turn very quickly. Two Thanksgivings ago, a Democratic takeover of even one house of Congress seemed like a long shot — so this rosy Democratic scenario for next year could start turning black without much warning. Yet the individual and collective behaviors of the partisans in Congress from now to next Nov. 4 seem destined to be framed by the expectation of a new era of Democratic dominance. And so fierce debates are now emerging in the inner circles of both Democrats and Republicans over how to respond — strategically and tactically — to these imminent reversals of party fortunes.Democrats, for instance, are anxious to stabilize their newfound footing in the majority, yet they are still struggling to capitalize on it. They say they are determined to deliver more legislative “victories” before next November, even as they disagree on which elements of their agenda to push next.

The debate plays out on a full range of issues, including Iraq policy, immigration, children’s health care and energy independence — pressing party leaders to decide which issues might be used most effectively on the campaign trail as evidence of Republican “obstructionism” and which are too internally divisive to bring to the floors of the House and Senate for potentially embarrassing votes.

Congress in Transition: Click Here to View Chart

One school of Democratic thought insists the party must seek avenues of compromise with GOP moderates to show the electorate that the people in charge of Congress can not only solve pressing national problems but also put an end to the partisan warfare that has bogged official Washington in a seemingly endless state of policy gridlock.

The other school favors digging in and relying on the pressure of the campaign to deliver Republican votes for Democratic initiatives, or on the voters to deliver more GOP-held seats into Democratic hands.

“I don’t think Democrats want to go into ’08 thinking we’ve done enough,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra , the appointed House leadership deputy of Speaker Nancy Pelosi , a colleague in California’s delegation. “There are some issues where time and voters will move us. Others are more difficult because the sides are intractable.”

Although Democratic leaders may attempt next year to reauthorize federal elementary and secondary education policy — now embodied in Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law — some Democrats say there is little incentive to hammer out a deal with a lame-duck president. “There is a case to be made for No Child Left Behind being on the back burner until we have a new president,” said Democratic Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama. “The next president really ought to have a crack at shaping education policy.”

Republicans, for their part, have an equally risk-filled choice to make. Staring at gloomy electoral prospects for the presidency and both houses of Congress, individual incumbents must decide what their motto will be — either “All for one and one for all” or “Run for your own lives!”

The former, a communitarian approach, would prompt the Republican leadership to launch a political guerilla war in the coming year — searching for every opportunity to stall, quash, undermine or ridicule Democratic initiatives, hoping that voters will become so disaffected with an image of Democratic ineptitude that the GOP can wriggle back into favor by default.

The other approach, more self-serving if not self-enlightened, would give individual Republican incumbents the opportunity to argue before their own constituencies that even though the system is broken, at least they have someone in place who is actually trying to fix it.

“It’s clearly a combination,” said David Dreier of California, a 27-year House veteran who is the ranking Republican and former chairman of the influential Rules Committee. “Where you can find areas of agreement, you want to pursue those. At the same time, it’s important where there are differences to point those out.”

But in neither party is it clear which view will prevail, or when.

Headwinds for Republicans

It isn’t always necessary for a party to enjoy robust popularity among voters to win majorities in Congress. Sometimes, it’s good enough just to not be the other guy.

Even though the public’s “honeymoon” with the congressional Democratic majorities was brief, there is scant evidence that voters are anxious to rush back to the party they so recently dumped.

A variety of big-picture and grass-roots indicators show that the Democrats have a significant edge. Congressional Quarterly’s most recent assessments of each of the 34 Senate seats and 435 House seats that will be contested next year — detailed on the following pages — show that the Democrats are in as good a position as they could hope for one year from Election Day. At the least, the odds favoring a Democratic hat trick — White House, House and Senate — are far better than the odds of a big reversal favoring the Republicans.

Some Republicans concede that they stand a better chance of making gains in the 2010 midterm congressional election than next year. “You’ve got to believe that the environment’s going to be better for us” in 2010, said Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, before adding, “I don’t think anybody’s looking past 2008.”

In public, anyway, most Republicans say there are signs that their situation could improve markedly by Election Day. Much of that hope is based on the prospect that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will win the Democratic presidential nomination, entering next fall’s campaign as the partisan lightning rod she’s been since her husband won the party’s presidential nomination, 15 years ago. A number of Republicans believe their best tool for turning out their own electoral base would be Clinton at the head of the Democratic ticket.

Another optimistic line of GOP thinking is that the slump in Congress’ job approval ratings since January provides Republicans with fodder to portray Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the Democratic rank and file as incapable stewards of Congress.

Some Republicans are approaching the upcoming elections with a two-sided political calculus. On one side, they see opportunity: There are 60 House Democrats whose districts favored Bush in 2004, but only eight Republican-held districts that favored Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry .

Meanwhile, GOP strategists also say it is now or never to oust some of the 30 Democrats who took Republican-held House seats last year — because freshmen tend to start putting down deep and steadying roots of incumbency after they’ve won a second term. “Your best chance is now, not 2010,” said Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Open-Seat Advantage

Yet along with the headaches they face at the macro level of national politics, the Republicans also face troubles at the district level as they calculate how to fashion the 16-seat net gain they need to retake control of the House. (The Democrats now hold 233 seats, 54 percent of the total.) For one thing, the GOP is witnessing a significant drain on the inherent electoral advantage of incumbency. The summer began a growing wave of longtime party stalwarts giving up relatively safe seats either to retire or to run for something else.

Yet along with the headaches they face at the macro level of national politics, the Republicans also face troubles at the district level as they calculate how to fashion the 16-seat net gain they need to retake control of the House. (The Democrats now hold 233 seats, 54 percent of the total.) For one thing, the GOP is witnessing a significant drain on the inherent electoral advantage of incumbency. The summer began a growing wave of longtime party stalwarts giving up relatively safe seats either to retire or to run for something else.Democrats, flush with majority control, committee and subcommittee chairmanships and campaign cash, are experiencing only a trickle of departures. So a huge imbalance in the number of “open” seats, which traditionally create the biggest opportunity for a party to win over a seat, is working in the Democrats’ favor.

As of last week, 18 House Republicans had made plans to be gone no later than the end of the 110th Congress. Of those, 13 are retiring; two are giving up their seats, even though they don’t have to, and running for president; two are running for the Senate; and one is about to become a governor.

But just four House Democrats have plans to move on: Three are running for the Senate, and one is retiring. As a consequence of that imbalance, eight Republican-held seats are projected to be a tossup in 2008, and six of them are being left open by GOP departures. But only two Democratic House contests are currently rated a tossup, and both are held by incumbents seeking re-election.

In the Senate, the GOP faces an even tougher task. The Republicans hold 49 seats and would need a net gain of just two to take control, far less than the six seats the Democrats won last year to secure their narrow majority. But it is virtually impossible at this early juncture in the 2008 campaign to envision how the GOP can get there.

Of the 34 Senate seats that will be on the ballot, 22 are currently held by Republicans. Among those, one turnover now seems to be a clear bet — in Virginia, where a popular former governor, Democrat Mark Warner, is running to succeed Republican John W. Warner , who’s retiring after 30 years. (The two aren’t related.) Beyond that, there are tossup races for four Republican-held seats — open seats in Colorado and New Mexico, and incumbents seeking second terms in Minnesota and New Hampshire. And Republican incumbents are running in highly competitive races in Maine and Oregon.

By comparison, the only Democratic Senate seat that currently seems genuinely in play is that of two-term incumbent Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who is currently showing a slight advantage. The other 11 Democratic seats all seem safe or close to it.

The Republican retirement plague is affecting the Senate outlook as well. Along with Warner in Virginia, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Wayne Allard of Colorado have set the stage for some of the strongest Democratic takeover bids. Two retiring incumbents in more dependably Republican states, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Larry E. Craig of Idaho, give the GOP a total of five open Senate seats to defend.

In contrast, none of the dozen Democratic incumbents up for re-election next year are departing.

Unpopularity Contest

So the Democrats have the institutional numbers in their favor. But do they have the issues on their side and the voting public’s support? Here again, underpinning the Democrats’ advantage are a number of indicators that appear consistently across public opinion polls — even if, in some cases, it’s more a matter of their party being less unpopular than the GOP.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey taken from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 showed Democrats not only leading Republicans by double-digit percentage points on Iraq, the economy and health care, but also leading by 7 points on immigration issues and 6 points on taxes — two matters the GOP is counting on to turn the tide its way. Even on the war on terrorism, the trademark issue for the Bush administration, which Republicans have emphasized since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Democratic Party is now statistically even with the GOP.

But the biggest factor working in the Democrats’ favor continues to be that they are not the Republicans.

The GOP is still reeling from the steep drop-off in public confidence that hurt the party so deeply last November — a result of the waning public support for the Iraq War, economic uncertainties, ethics controversies and other problems that concomitantly turned Bush into one of the most unpopular presidents of modern times.

Republicans have spent much of the year trying to reinvigorate their base by battling Democratic initiatives and are working to polish their “brand” before the election. “We’re in the season of battle and obstruction,” said sixth-term Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr. of Mississippi, who’s one of the GOP incumbents giving up his seat next year but who still harbors statewide political aspirations. “Next year will be the season of defining and developing an agenda.”

Republicans have ballyhooed the universally negative congressional job approval figures as an indication that Democrats are poised for a fall next year. (Congress’ most recent approval ratings were 19 percent in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey taken Nov. 1-5, and 28 percent in the ABC-Post poll of the week before.)

Yet in the accompanying questions about how voters view each party in Congress, there is much, much less for the Republicans to cheer about. True, 36 percent in the ABC-Post poll approved of the Democrats, and 58 percent disapproved. But the figures for the GOP were worse: 32 percent approval and 63 percent disapproval. When asked a broader question about the parties, 51 percent said they have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while only 39 percent said the same about the Republicans.
This has hardly translated into a warm embrace for the Democrats or their congressional leadership. Congress’ overall job approval rating has been extraordinarily low for months, driven down in large part by partisan stalemates over priority issues such as the future of the Iraq War, immigration, health care, energy, the environment and education. But no matter which way the question is asked, respondents, by wide margins, say they’d rather have Democrats running Congress than Republicans.

The ABC-Post poll asked respondents which party they’d prefer to see in control of Congress after the next election, regardless of their preferences in their home districts and states. The Democrats were on top by 14 points. A similar question in the NBC-Journal poll turned up a 9-point Democratic advantage.

In an Oct. 17-23 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 43 percent said they believed this Congress has done less than usual, and only 5 percent said more than usual. But the plurality that labeled Congress unproductive did not heap the blame on the Democratic leadership. Among this group, 30 percent said Republican leaders were at fault, 26 percent said Democratic leaders were to blame, and 34 percent blamed both. By contrast, in October 2006, a month before the GOP lost its majorities, a clear majority of 59 percent of survey respondents blamed Congress’ shortcomings on Republican leaders.

An Election Agenda

Ultimately, Democrats know they cannot sustain House and Senate majorities over the long term by only pointing fingers at their more publicly vilified rivals in the GOP. “That will only last for a while,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch , a member of Massachusetts’ all-Democratic congressional delegation. “As we gain more clout down here, we’ll also gain more responsibility. It’s very dangerous to operate at that low approval rating.”

Even though they have delivered this year on promises such as raising the minimum wage, lowering interest rates on college loans and enacting a new ethics law, there is an emerging consensus among Democrats that their legislative checklist must grow longer. They have been unable to enact any law to alter Bush’s policies in Iraq or change immigration policy, and the battle over appropriations remains intractable going into December.

Indeed, to many Democrats the party’s legislative accomplishments have been completely overshadowed in the minds of voters by the frustrated effort to alter the president’s course in Iraq. The voters, said veteran Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, “don’t have but one thing they want us to pass.”

Their best chances for action on marquee items appear to be an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and legislation to promote energy efficiency. Even though Bush has already vetoed a version of the children’s health bill — defining it as a budget-busting shift of insurance obligations from the private sector to the government — Democrats and Republicans say a rewrite will eventually become law because GOP moderates do not want to be accused in their election campaigns of being against medical care for children.

There also is mounting pressure from moderate Democrats for party leaders to take up legislation cracking down on illegal immigration. Given the high priority the majority’s leaders place on protecting potentially vulnerable centrist freshman members — whom Pelosi refers to as the “majority makers” — prospects are increasing, at least in the House, for a vote next year on a bill heavy on law enforcement and light on provisions to integrate current illegal immigrants into U.S. society.

Still, Democrats will need to decide quickly on which issues they’ll seek common ground with Republicans in hopes of addressing the perceived public demand for Congress to “do something.” The off-year window for serious legislating will close in the next month. Given the front-loaded primary and caucus calendar, once Congress reconvenes in January, its preoccupation will be with presidential politics.

“What drives me nuts about this place is that, when I came here, it used to be that you had at least a year after you were elected where you could get the people’s business done before the next election intruded,” said David R. Obey , the veteran Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “Now, the way politics has been nationalized, the election intrudes virtually every day, and it becomes more intense at an earlier time.”

The spending stalemate, which Obey is at the center of, offers a clear view of the internal battle among Republicans over when to fight and when to break bread with Democrats.

GOP conservatives are eager to see Bush make good on his threat to veto domestic spending bills he sees as too generous, even though Congress this month won a veto override — the first of Bush’s presidency — on a bill containing hundreds of local energy and water projects. The conservatives would prefer to see Congress roll up its spending bills into a yearlong “continuing resolution” that would serve to cap the growth of government. They believe that could help appease a conservative voting base that is still furious over what it saw as profligate spending by the Republicans when they were in power.

But some of their more moderate counterparts are just as anxious to send money home for schools, hospitals, police departments, parks, water projects and the like in advance of the election. “I wish the Democrats and the White House could get together and reach some compromises,” said Idaho’s Simpson, who holds a safely Republican district.

A similar sentiment was voiced by Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Murphy , who last year very narrowly ousted an incumbent Republican in a suburban Philadelphia district evenly divided between supporters of the two major parties. “It will be to our own peril if we don’t continue to get things done,” Murphy said.

Greg Giroux, Marie Horrigan, Rachel Kapochunas, Jessica Benton Cooney, Nathan Levinson and Jesse Stanchak contributed reporting for this story and the charts on the following pages.

FOR FURTHER READING: Status of major legislation, p. 3557; status of fiscal 2008 appropriations, p. 3555; initial 2008 election outlook, CQ Weekly, p. 2444; Senate midterm election, 2006 Almanac, p. 17-7; House midterm election, p. 17-9.