Challenges facing the Democrats

Dateline 19 April 2006

There seems to be a growing consensus that the Democrats are on course for major gains in November’s mid-term elections. Commentators and opinion pollsters are both pretty clear on this.

Of course much could change between now and November. But any shift could be in either direction. The reality in the economy and in Iraq’s security situation is very strong. Politics always lags reality, and by November that gap could have closed. But it is just as possible that the Democrat catchphrase ‘the culture of corruption’ will have sunk in. There is something of a tradition – broken in 1998 – of a ‘six year itch’ against the President’s party.

But if the expectation of Democrat gains continues to hold, can the Party really expect to take either house of Congress? Short of a GOP meltdown, the answer is probably not.

The House has now been in Republican hands for 12 years. Over the same period the GOP has become, for the first time in generations, the larger party in terms of state legislators and party registrations. This is critical. It is state legislators who control the redistricting process, and who can thus gerrymander districts in the interests of the majority party.

States where the Republicans now control both houses, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have managed the redistricting process to favor the GOP. More significant still is the undoing of past Democrat gerrymandering.

Since 1994 the two parties have been fairly balanced in state legislatures. Gerrymandering only takes place when one party controls both houses and the governorship, something much less common today than for decades. Previous redistricting cycles were overwhelmingly controlled by the Democrats. Take Texas as an example. Though held up as an example of Republican gerrymandering, the real disgrace was in the previous district boundaries. Until 2004, the Democrats regularly won the majority of Texas districts, with 40-45% of the two party vote. Now Republicans have 60% of the districts, more or less in line with the party’s performance in a good year.

A combination of gerrymandering and demographic shift means that there are fewer competitive districts in each election cycle. For Democrats to win the House they will need to win districts nobody currently expects to be competitive.

In the Senate their task is a modicum easier. State boundaries are not gerrymandered. But, again, they will have to do extraordinarily well. There are six Republican states in which the Democrats have a decent chance of winning. To take control of the Senate they need to win them all, and hold some difficult elections on their home turf. They have to retain Nebraska, for example, which voted Bush by 70% in 2004. In New Jersey – admittedly a blue state – an appointed Democrat faces a challenge by a well-funded son of a former governor. In Maryland and Minnesota the Democrats are defending open seats against strong Republican candidates.

At the moment, it looks likely that the Democrats will do well in terms of the popular vote. But much of that will be reflected in huge majorities for incumbents in states like New York and California. To turn that popularity into control of either house is a tough challenge indeed.

Copyright (c) Quentin Langley 19 April 2006

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