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Surf’s Up? GOP May Face ‘Wave’ At the Ballot Box

For the first time since 1994, when a national political revolt washed away the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, conditions are right for the development of another political “wave.” But this time, it is the Republicans who are most vulnerable if a wave breaks over the 2004 Congressional elections. [IMGCAP(1)]

No, I’m not predicting that Democrats will catch a wave, only noting that for the first time in a decade all the ingredients for a dramatic event are present.

With status quo Congressional elections resulting in the defeat of few incumbents and relatively minor changes to the makeup of the House in 1996, 1998 and 2000, and redistricting solidifying incumbents in 2002, it’s easy to forget the potential impact a staggering economy can have on voters — and on incumbent House Members who just a few months earlier had been regarded as politically invulnerable.

The long-term political outlook for President Bush and his party is far from rosy, even if the war against Iraq goes extremely well.

A clear majority of Americans are telling pollsters that they’re dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and the president’s dividend tax cut and prescription drug proposals are meeting resistance on Capitol Hill. Moreover, both domestic and international question marks continue to ensnare consumer confidence, consumer spending and business investment.

Add to this the fact that Republicans now control both chambers of Congress and the presidency, making it an easy task for Democrats to hold them responsible for any and all bad news, and you can make a compelling case that the GOP could be headed for trouble. The last time one party had power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue heading into an election? The last time there was a massive wave, 1994.

If all of this negative news evaporates after the war, then the Republicans should retain the White House and both chambers of Congress next year. But if it doesn’t, you don’t have to strain too much to see a pro-Democratic wave scenario that could turn House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into the Speaker of the House.

There have been six House waves in this country in the past 40 years: in 1994, 1982, 1980, 1974, 1966 and 1964. (In each of those elections, one party gained at least 20 seats — and usually many more.)

The 1994 midterm wave followed the defeat of the politically disastrous Clinton health care plan and reflected latent Republican strength, particularly in the South. The 1982 wave was driven by high unemployment and the “Reagan recession.” The 1980 wave was a reaction to a terrible economy, an international embarrassment (the Iran hostage crisis) and the perception that President Jimmy Carter was in over his head.

The other two waves were primarily political. The 1974 results followed from the Watergate scandal, while the 1964 and 1966 waves can be traced to Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination and to a GOP rebound two years later.

A 2004 wave, if it comes, might not produce Democratic gains as dramatic as some of the earlier waves, in which one party gained three or four dozen House seats. Redistricting cemented too many incumbents, and the Democrats begin with too many seats for a tsunami of that magnitude. So the results might well be a smaller shift, but still in the significant 15- to 25-seat range. Of course, a wave of even that size would put Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in the minority.

Republican freshmen such as Reps. Jon Porter (Nev.), Bob Beauprez (Colo.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) could easily be swept out by a wave, as could GOP incumbents such as Reps. Anne Northup (Ky.), Jim Leach (Iowa) and Rob Simmons (Conn.), who may be unbeatable without a significant Democratic environmental advantage. And a true wave would drag down a handful of incumbents that currently wouldn’t appear on any list of vulnerable Republicans.

But saying that the time is ripe for a wave doesn’t guarantee that it is going to happen. The fact that four of the six waves already cited occurred during midterm election years, rather than concurrently with a presidential election, can’t be ignored. And circumstances, particularly economic ones, could change dramatically between now and November 2004, improving Republican prospects immensely.

Whether a Democratic wave develops is not an academic matter. In a neutral political environment, the Democrats would need to “cherry pick” a net gain of 12 seats to seize a House majority, a near impossibility. But a wave would create an entirely different dynamic, increasing the size of the electoral playing field and allowing the Democrats to win districts that they didn’t seriously threaten during the last few cycles.

Of course, the Democrats would still need to recruit credible candidates in lower first-tier and second-tier districts to position themselves for a wave. And the party and their candidates would still need to raise enough money to compete against the better-funded Republicans.

Democratic House Members and strategists are once again spending countless hours working on the party’s “message” and tactics. But if they do end up seriously competing for House control next year or even winning it, they can thank a wave. Now we simply need to wait to see if one develops.

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