The GOP hanging on

Republicans are losing the air game. They are associated with an unpopular war. They are beset by scandal. A Republican president is scraping along at new lows of public approval seemingly every week. And they appear to have run out of ideas, at least ones that they can govern on. But the ground game is another matter.

After 10 years in the majority, House Republicans have become master electoral mechanics; they know the advantages of incumbency the way your plumber knows your sink. The chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, calls it fundamental “block and tackle” politics. It is an unglamorous, uninspiring formula, but one that makes it very likely that even after suffering a year that could hardly be more dreadful, the House Republican majority will live to fight another day.

The vision that Democrats have dancing through their heads is the debacle that swept them from power in 1994, only in reverse. But such a shift next year — Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats — would require something that has been increasingly wrung from our congressional elections: competition.

Sophisticated redistricting makes it possible to finely craft district lines to suit the interests of their current occupants. It used to be that redistricting would be done on gasolinestation road maps. Now anyone can buy software for $200 or so that makes protecting incumbents an exact science.

Congressional expert Charles Cook sees only 30 competitive races so far, 18 of them for seats held by Republicans. In 1994, there were 106 competitive races, 95 of them in seats held by Democrats. In 1992, 56 Democrats won their seats with less than 55 percent of the vote, a sign of a shaky hold on their districts for the 1994 elections. Last year only 19 Republicans won by similarly slim margins.

This means Democrats have a tough standard to reach to take back the House if the current landscape holds — namely, perfection. They would have to win every one of their competitive districts, then win nearly every one — 15 out of 18 — of the Republican ones.

Because it is so hard to beat any incumbent, retirements that create “open seats” play a key role in congressional elections. Currently, 13 Republicans are retiring, and seven Democrats. That’s a manageable turnover. In 1994, there were 31 Democratic open seats.

The GOP also has a practical appreciation for the uses of money. Its campaign committee has a wide advantage over its Democratic counterpart in cash on hand, $18 million to $9 million. The nine most vulnerable Republicans are sitting on at least a $500,000 campaign kitty each to see them through their races, thanks partly to an effective GOP program to funnel dollars from safe incumbents to harderpressed members.

Incumbency, favorable district lines, cash: They are not rallying cries. But this is what the current Republican congressional majority is made of. It is probably going to take a presidential candidate emerging sometime after the ’06 election to infuse the party with new energy and purpose. Until then, the Republican majority will stumble on. Hold your noses and hide your eyes.

  • Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review
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