WASHINGTON — The results of Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s Second Congressional District provide us with few clues as to how the 2006 race for control of Congress might shake out.
Republican Jean Schmidt defeated Democrat Paul Hackett to retain the seat in the Republican column. This should come as no surprise as this is a heavily Republican part of the world where George W. Bush received 64% just last year.
On the other hand, the Democrats pulled out all the stops to win the seat. Hackett is a Marine just back from Iraq who sometimes sounded like he was running against George W. Bush himself, rather than Jean Schmidt, so critical of the president was he (he openly called the president a “chicken hawk” on the stump). Hackett is tall, good-looking, and smart. Jim Carville and Max Cleland trekked to Ohio to help him raise money. The leftwing blogosphere, still chasing the idea that if they just hate George W. Bush enough they will eventually win something, helped Hackett raise tens of thousands of dollars.
Moreover, Ohio was the scene of the crime; the state Karl Rove “stole” in order to maintain his death clutch on America and deliver putrid Democracy to half-naked savages overseas. Add a trumped-up rare coins scandal which shrouds the GOP in Ohio and suddenly the race looked competitive.
And Hackett made it close. Schmidt won with only 52% of the vote compared to 48% for Hackett. And yet, despite the Democrat nominee’s relatively high vote count in this Republican district, his loss should come as further discouraging news to national Democrats who hope beyond all hope to take back the House of Representatives someday.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, I posited on this site that even accounting for an anti-Republican tidal wave in 2006, the Democrats would be hard pressed to reclaim the U.S. Senate. A confluence of limited competitive seats, expensive media markets, and fundraising realities make it nearly impossible for Harry Reid to win a majority. The challenges are compounded when we turn to Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats in the House.
To refresh, it is my contention that the issues and personalities at play in 2006, while somewhat predictable, are actually quite fluid and in many ways irrelevant. All we can rely on while surveying the 2006 landscape is: (1) The number of, and political nature, of the seats in play; (2) The financial costs associated with “playing” in those seats; and (3) The resources available to the two parties. Based on these objective criteria, I expect Speaker Denny Hastert to hold onto the gavel for another two years.
According to political prognosticator extraordinaire Charlie Cook, only eight congressional seats are “toss ups”; races that could just as easily swing to the Republican or Democrats candidates.
Understand, the GOP has a 233-201-1 advantage in the House of Representatives.
Worst still for Democrats, only three of those seats (CO-07, IA-01, and PA-06) are potential “pickups” for them. The other five (CO-03, IL-08, LA-03, OH-06, TX-17) are seats Democrats have to defend.
This very small battleground is disproportionately Republican territory. President Bush received an average vote share of 53.9% in these eight districts in 2004; John Kerry received only 45.5% (though, to be fair, those averages include a Bush blowout in TX-17. If we extirpate TX-17, Bush still won these eight districts by a 51.7% to 47.7% margin).
Money will play a factor. Both the Republicans and the Democrats must defend expensive seats. Democrats have to spend resources in the wildly expensive Denver and Chicago media markets, as well as in pricy Pittsburgh and Cleveland to defend CO-03, IL-08, and OH-6, respectively.
Republicans need to defend an open seat in the Denver media market (CO-07), as well as a vulnerable incumbent (Rep. Jim Gerlach in PA-06) in the Philadelphia market, one of the most expensive markets in the U.S.
Of course, Democrats will do all in their power to make more seats competitive by recruiting top-flight candidates. Toward that goal they will target seats that only “Lean Republican.” According to Cook, fifteen seats “Lean Republican” and nine seats “Lean Democrat.” In my experience, however, the seats that “Lean” toward one party or the other rarely break the other way. For example, in the last Cook Political Report before the 2004 election, dated October 29th, 2004, Cook listed ten “Lean Democrat” seats and thirteen “Lean Republican” seats. There were no surprises; they all broke the way they leaned.
Moreover, recruiting strong candidates will be difficult for Democrats. The first question a prospective candidate asks when approached to run by the party bigs is, “How much money will you spend on this race if I do?” The answer, if Democrats are to be honest, will be, “not much.”
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through the month of July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has raised a total of $24,070,752.10 so far this year. The National Republican Congressional Committee has raised $39,984,494.62. The DCCC has only $8,544,288.27 cash on hand compared to the NRCC’s $16,377, 230.66. The DCCC has $3,666,666.67 in outstanding debts. The NRCC has no debt.
Put simply, Democrats have fewer dollars to defend more seats, which limits their ability to create a greater number of competitive races by recruiting rock star candidates.
SO, WHAT ABOUT A tidal wave? A great many Democrats have convinced themselves that the “Republican corruption” leitmotif will carry them into power.
That’s a tough sell, particularly when 19 of the 43 members of Congress that have acknowledged doing what Majority Leader Tom DeLay is being witch-hunted for — allowing lobbyists to pay for junket travel — are themselves Democrats.
Harping on corruption may also dampen recruitment. How many Democrats — no matter how qualified — with potential skeletons in their closets will choose to run in a year when their own party leaders will make moral piety the threshold for serving in Congress?
And as one high-level GOP communications operative said to me, “In 1998 we spent over $20 million in districts all across the country reminding everyone about Bill Clinton and the blue dress. We lost seats. Why are voters going to turn Republicans out of power because some Congressman they think they might have heard of may have done something that a bunch of other Congressmen did, too?”
The bottom line is, the Democrats need to win all three Republican-held “toss up” seats and maintain all five of theirs, plus hold all their “Lean Democrat” seats and win all but three of the “Lean Republican” seats to gain a majority.
At a press conference in the heat of the 2004 campaign, Nancy Pelosi confidently averred she would be Speaker of the House during the next session of Congress. Members of the press corps contained their laughter, though they might have had a good chuckle over drinks later on. If Pelosi were to make the same statement today, their drinks would come pouring out their noses.
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