On the heels of decisive victories up and down the ticket, Congressional Republicans moved quickly to portray their gains as an indicator that the partisan deadlock that has gripped the country for the past four years has been broken in their favor.
Republicans now control 231 seats in the House and 55 seats in the Senate, margins that either set or tie previous high water marks for the party since World War II.
While these margins still do not give a comfortable governing majority to Republicans in either the House or Senate, a number of GOP strategists suggested that Tuesday’s election proved that a sustainable majority for years to come is within reach.
“This is a significant move toward Republican strength,” said GOP media consultant Greg Stevens. “It is a reflection of the fact that Republicans generally are more in touch with middle America and the old Nixon ‘silent majority.’”
Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant with a hand in GOP Senate victories in Louisiana and Oklahoma among other races, echoed that sentiment.
“Fifty-five in the Senate, 231 in the House and the largest popular vote in history equals a mandate,” he said. “No one can say otherwise.”
Democrats, although demoralized by the results, were quick to dispute that notion.
“It is fair to say it is a 51 percent Republican country right now,” acknowledged Steve Murphy, a media consultant and manager of Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) failed presidential effort earlier this year. “If you consider that to be a huge majority or a mandate then they have it. I don’t think it’s either.”
Another consultant heavily involved in the battle for the House and Senate called the results a “tentative thumbs up” for President Bush and Republicans in the House and Senate.
As Tuesday’s results became clear, strategists in both parties immediately turned their attention to the 2006 elections, which if history is any guide, should deliver some needed good news for Democrats.
In the five elections since World War II that featured a president in his sixth year — so-called “six-year-itch” cycles — the party out of the Oval Office has picked up an average of 29 House and six Senate seats.
“Voters might not scratch as hard as they have historically, but these numbers are pretty high for a divided country,” said one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “After six years of [Bush] people will be really tired of him.”
Republicans said privately, however, that while they are aware of the historical precedent, their gains Tuesday will likely provide a bulwark against those historic losses and keep them in the majority through 2006 and beyond.
“It is like going into the fourth quarter of any football game with a two-touchdown lead,” LaCivita said.
A look at the playing field in the Senate in 2006 shows Democrats with more vulnerabilities. Seventeen Democrats, as well as Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), are up for re-election, a group that includes eight Members first elected in 2000 and six Senators who will be older than 70 if they run in two years time.
With the Senate majority slipping further out of their grasp, several aging Democrats may decide to retire. That list of potential retirees is led by Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, but also includes Jeffords.
On the Republican side, 15 Senators will see their terms expire in 2006.
The only obvious Democratic pickup chances among Republican-held seats are anticipated open seats in Tennessee and Mississippi, where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and his immediate predecessor, Trent Lott, are expected to retire.
Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) also is expected to be heavily targeted.
On the House side, Republicans now hold a 14-seat majority and are likely to benefit throughout the decade from a 2001 redistricting that largely protected incumbents of both parties.
Approximately 35 seats were seriously contested by the two sides on Tuesday, a number that must grow considerably if Democrats hope to come within shouting distance of the majority in 2006.
For now, however, Republicans are reveling in their victory, which was nearly complete and spanned from coast to coast.
No win was bigger than that of former Rep. John Thune (R) over Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), the first time since 1952 that a sitting party leader in the Senate has lost a bid for re-election.
After coming within 524 votes of victory in 2002 against Sen. Tim Johnson (D), Thune won a 4,000-vote, 51 percent to 49 percent triumph over Daschle.
Daschle’s loss was the first of his 26-year Congressional career. The South Dakota Democrat had not had a serious challenge since that first Senate race, a fact that “ill served” him, according to Thune campaign manager Dick Wadhams.
“Daschle had a false sense of security that he could vote as liberally as he wanted in Washington and lead the Democrats’ obstruction,” Wadhams said.
Thune’s win, said Wadhams, “sends a very chilling message to Senate Democrats that there is a price to pay for excessive obstructionism and partisanship.”
Wadhams pointed out that Tuesday marked the second straight cycle where voters had punished Democrats for their obstruction.
In 2002, then-Sen. Max Cleland’s (D-Ga.) loss widely was attributed to his decision to support the blockage of the administration’s outline for a Homeland Security Department.
In addition to the Thune victory, GOP candidates also ran the table in the five Democratic-held seats in the South aided by a strong showing by Bush.
The five victorious Senate Republicans won an average of 53 percent of the vote; Rep. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) 58 percent was the best showing of the five, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) prevailed with just 50 percent.
Although their successes were largely obscured by their party’s losses, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama (D) and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) both won seats previously held by Republicans.
The only one of the eight Senate open seats not to switch parties Tuesday was in Oklahoma, where former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) won a solid 53 percent to 41 percent victory over Rep. Brad Carson (D).
Despite more than a year of polling that showed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) trailing former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), the Republican managed a surprisingly comfortable win.
And, in Kentucky, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) survived a near-death political experience, beating back a challenge from state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D) by approximately 23,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast.
Republican victories were not limited to the Senate, however, as House GOPers gained seats in consecutive elections while the majority party for the first time in history.
At a briefing Wednesday morning, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) noted that the 231 Members are the most his party has elected since 1946.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 election, when Republicans picked up 52 seats to take back control after four decades in the minority, they found themselves controlling 230 seats. Six Democrats switched parties before the 1996 election, pushing their number to 236.
Republicans are optimistic they can add to their current 231 seats next month in Louisiana, where runoffs are set in the open 3rd and 7th districts.
Republican candidates led the balloting in both of those contests, though they must square off one-on-one with Democrats come Dec. 4.
Reynolds also repeated his claim that this was not a coattail election, pointing out that while Republicans defeated four incumbents in GOP-friendly Texas, Connecticut Reps. Rob Simmons and Christopher Shays were re-elected “despite attempts to link them to President Bush.”
Simmons and Shays won with 54 percent and 52 percent, respectively, although Bush took only 44 percent in the Constitution State.
The key to House Republicans’ two-seat gain was Texas, where a 2003 re-redistricting engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) led to the defeats of Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm and Martin Frost.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D), who narrowly defeated state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R), was the only one of the “Texas Five” to win re-election.
Reynolds said the NRCC spent $8 million on independent expenditures in Texas, one-fifth of the total IE disbursements by the committee in the cycle.
Outside of Texas, Rep. Baron Hill (Ind.) was the only other Democratic incumbent to lose. Hill fell to trucking company executive Mike Sodrel (R), who had received 46 percent in his 2002 challenge to the Democrat.
Republicans’ incumbent losses were limited to two: Rep. Max Burns in Georgia’s 12th district and Rep. Phil Crane (R) in Illinois 9th.
Burns fell victim to the decided Democratic tilt of his southeastern Georgia district, while Crane was unable to recover from years of inattention to his campaign machinery.
Neither party claimed a decisive win among the competitive open seats as Republicans picked up Kentucky’s 4th district and Washington’s 8th while Democrats won New York’s 27th district and Colorado’s 3rd, both of which were previously held by GOPers.
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.