Monday, March 03, 2008

November's Election

In 246 days from now, a majority of Americans who vote in their national elections will choose, for the office of President of the United States, Barack Obama. In popular votes and State electoral votes received, Senator Obama will out-poll his main rival, John McCain, by an unusually big margin.

On that same day, November 4th, voting in the various States will produce a big change in the U.S. Senate. Members who are affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with President-elect Obama, will increase in number from 51 out of 100 to 56 or more. Democrats will beat Republican nominees in contests to replace retiring Republicans in Virginia (Mark Warner succeeds John Warner), Colorado (Mark Udall succeeds Wayne Allard) and New Mexico (Tom Udall succeeds Pete Domenici). Elsewhere, Democratic candidates will oust Republican incumbents in New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen for John Sununu) and Minnesota (Al Franken for Norm Coleman). Those changes may be augmented by additional wins by Democratic nominees against incumbent Republicans in Oregon (Gordon Smith) and Maine (Susan Collins), and perhaps even Alaska (Ted Stevens), Mississippi (short-termer Roger Wicker succeeding retiree Trent Lott) or Oklahoma (James Inhofe).

In the House of Representatives, too, the Democrats’ majority, acquired just two years ago, will increase. The net gain will be at least 15 seats, to 246 or more out of 435. In Pennsylvania, all four Democrats who wrested seats from Republicans in November 2006 will retain their offices. One more Democrat may be added. In Illinois, long before November,Democratic nominee Bill Foster will beat Republican Jim Oberweiss in the 14th district, which had been the citadel of Republican chieftain Dennis Hastert, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. {After Note: in a March 8th special election, Foster did win the seat. He'll be the incumbent in a second match against Oberweiss in November. His recent winning margin, 52%-48%, will grow). And in th 11th Congressional District in Illinois, Democrat Debbie Halvorsen will capture the seat vacated by Republican Jerry Weller. In North Carolina's 8th district, Democratic nominee Larry Kissell, who lost to Republican incumbent Robin Hayes by only 329 votes in 2006, will win the seat this time. In Colorado’s 4th District, Betsy Markey will beat Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave. In Missouri, Democratic candidates will pick up the Republican-held 6th District seat, or the 9th District seat, or both. In Florida’s 13th District, Christine Jennings will oust Vern Buchanan. In New York, the 23-6 preponderance of Democrats in the Congress will undergo a small increase. The three Democrats who captured Republican-held seats in 2006--Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hall and Michael Arcuri--will win re-election. Among the seats that are currently occupied by Republicans James Walsh, Randy Kuhl and James Reynolds, at least one will be captured by the Democratic nominee. The captor could well be Dan Maffei in the 25th District, from which Mr Walsh is retiring, or Erik Massa in the 29th District, making a second run against Mr Kuhl. Meanwhile, the Democrats will pick up the one State Senate seat they need in order to break the long-established Republican control of that law-making body.

That package of predictions is not based on observations of astral alignments or chickens’ entrails. It marks an attempt to read the implications of politically relevant conditions that already are firmly set as well as to anticipate the effects of formative events that are likely to occur between now and Election Day. (It can be read as a sequel to what appeared in Seeing Greene back in August 29, 2006, 80 days before the November by-elections. We foresaw a “Democratic sweep.” To that generalization we attached numbers, in the way of likely gains of seats in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and governors’ mansions. The numbers were big, they came earlier than the projections of nationally reputed prognosticators, and they were substantially correct. The current forecast, at any rate, is based on these considerations.

UNEVEN TURNOUT. The standard pattern in United States elections is for Republican-leaning voters to participate at higher rates than Democratic-leaning voters. That will not happen this November. The coming reversal of form has been foreshadowed by turnout figures in the State primary elections and caucuses. Participation in the Democratic contests far exceeded participation on the Republican side. Thus, on Super Tuesday, as TIME writer Joe Klein pointed out, votes cast in the Democratic primaries exceeded votes cast in the Republican primaries, in the same States, by 15.4 million to 9.2 million.

Differences of that sort attest to the fact that, as Republican strategist Scott Reed has said (Associated Press, 2/28/08), Republicans have suffered since 2006 from “an enthusiasm gap.” Democratic candidates “have big crowds, raise more money and appear to have more excitement on the campaign trail.” That condition, of course, could change in the coming months—eight of them—before Election Day. An outburst of prosperity, for example, would rejuvenate the Republican cause; but the economic news is more likely to continue to be troubling; and that hurts the President’s party. In the words of pro-Republican columnist Robert Novak (2/29/08), “lack of liquidity is a menace that could implode the economy and create a Democratic electoral landslide.”

Republican sympathizers have been demoralized by Botch Administration blunders, by scandals involving Republican Congressmen, and then by the nomination battle’s wrangling over “conservative” credentials. Some of them, in addition to withholding their money and their energies, will not bother to vote. Some of them, indeed, will abstain in the hope that a major defeat for Senator McCain will serve to discredit his imperfectly “conservative” stance, thereby paving the way for nominating a pure “conservative” in 2012 or 2016.

By way of contrast, supporters of Hillary Clinton and of the other unsuccessful contestants for the Democratic presidential nomination have not been alienated from their party by the conflicts that have attended Barack Obama’s drive to the nomination. They do not comprise a demographic or ideological bloc. Consequently, while the Republican nominating convention in July reopens and deepens the conflicts that have attended the preceding primary election battles, the Democrats’ nominating convention will be a love feast. Meanwhile, Senator Obama has proved to be extraordinarily popular with people belonging to segments of the population whose turnout rates usually are low: independents, African-Americans, and young voters. Their numbers will swell the support for him—and for his ticket—in November.

*SPECIAL VULNERABILITY. Republican campaign funds are abnormally low this year, at a time when Republican needs are abnormally high. Electoral setbacks for Republicans will be caused not just by the Obama-fueled Coattail Effect, but also by electoral arithmetic. This factor is especially salient for the U.S. Senate elections. On November 4th, 34 seats will be subject to contest on the ballot and, as it happens, 22 of them are currently occupied by Republicans. The Democrats, while holding a 51-49 majority, must defend only 12 seats. Their big financial advantage--a historical rarity--coincides with a strategic advantage. Sen. Charles Schumer’s campaign committee can protect the incumbent Democrats and still give generous financial support to challengers of incumbent Republicans.

*RETIREMENTS. Adding to the problem of having more seats to defend is the Republicans’ problem of having more vacancies to fill. Thus, in the Senate, at least four of the seats that are subject to contest on November 4th and are currently occupied by Republicans will be vacant; the incumbent is not seeking re-election. The retirees include John Warner of Virginia, Wayne Allard of Colorado, Peter Domenici of New Mexico, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. (They may be joined by the egregious Larry Craig of Idaho). Democratic nominees Mark Warner, Morris Udall and Tom Udall will capture the Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico seats. Elsewhere, strong Democratic challenges to incumbent Republican Senators are being mounted not only in New Hampshire and Minnestoa, but also in Maine, Oregon and even Alaska and Oklahoma. They will occur in the midst of a strong national tide.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, all 435 seats will be subject to contest in November, but not every contest will pit a challenger against an incumbent. In more than a few districts, the current incumbent will not be on the ballot. In those districts, accordingly, neither contestant reaps the electoral profit that normally goes with incumbency: the salary, the staff budget, the pressure group connections, the stock of favors previously done for constituents. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the retiring Representative is a Republican. And in most of those cases, the retiree is from a competitively marginal district. [Addendum: According to a Chicago Tribune appraisal (3/14), 50% more Republican- than Democrat-held House seats are "in play," and the national Democrats have 5 times more dollars to spend on their campaigns. Moreover, regarding the seats captured by Democrats from Republicans in 2006, only half are counted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as winnable prospects]

As of late February 2008, 30 Republican incumbents had vacated seats or had announced retirement plans. (Only six Democratic incumbents had done the same, and three of them are running for higher office). The Republican figure is the highest in 50 years. Many of those Members are quitting because they anticipate either defeat at the hands of a challenger or victory by a narrow margin after a harrowing campaign. This sense of futility is fueled by realistic considerations:

Minority status. When the Republicans lost their House and Senate majorities in the November 2006 elections, they incurred a big reduction in ability to deliver vote-winning services to their constituents. Conversely, the Democrats who won seats for the first time in 2006 immediately gained the leverage that goes with belonging to the House's governing party.

Poverty. According to an Associated Press story (2/29/08), Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton jointly raised seven times as much campaign money in February as John McCain did. Similar disparities have occurred with regard to the two parties’ Senatorial and Congressional campaign committees. The Democratic committees can give generous backing to every Democratic candidate, even to challengers of seemingly entrenched Republicans. The Republican committees’ funds will go only to beleaguered incumbents.

Challenger quality. Because 2008 looks good for the Democrats, strong candidates step forward to run for Republican-held seats. Conversely, because 2008 looks good for the Democrats, strong, electable Republican challengers of incumbent Democrats are hard to find. This seems to be the case even where incumbent Democrats are defending seats that had been held by Republicans for decades before November 2006.

Frustration. Many of the retiring House Republicans come under the classification “moderate” or “centrist.” They cluster in Washington, says Thomas F. Schaller in an American Prospect piece (12/07) in the group known as the Main Street Partnership. Although their political orientation has helped them to survive in their marginal districts, it has put them at odds with party chieftains. Instead of making a special point of protecting the occupants of those marginal districts, by way of valuable perquisites and promotions, the House leaders (Newt Gingrich, then Tom Delay, then John Boehmer) have thwarted their moderate colleagues, who at the same time are apt to be hammered at home by “conservative” GOP activists. (This pattern is depicted by John Gizzi, political editor of the arch-“conservative” organ Human Events, in an 11/26/07 posting. It has for its counterparts on the Democratic side primary election challenges to “Bush Democrats.” Two of those challenges recently were successful. They occurred in safe Democratic seats).

So: who wants to bet?

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