GOP’s Structural Advantage

National Journal‘s Charlie Cook argues that the Republicans have a huge “Structural Advantage” that makes their retention of Congress likely even with troubling poll numbers.

Structural barriers are protecting the GOP’s majorities like seawalls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2, or 3 storm. Despite national political trends indicating that the GOP is in serious trouble, a race-by-race “micro” analysis suggests that Democrats cannot easily seize control of the House or the Senate this fall.

In the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of six seats. Republicans are truly fortunate to have only one senator retiring, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Although Democratic Rep. Harold Ford is a talented candidate, he will have his work cut out for him against the winner of a competitive three-way August GOP primary for Frist’s seat. The South has become a GOP stronghold. In 2004, Democrats went 0 for 5 in attempting to hold open Senate seats in that region. Democrats need to win in Tennessee and knock off five GOP incumbents. Only five look truly vulnerable: Conrad Burns of Montana, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent of Missouri.

Santorum is running 10 to 15 points behind in most polls, though my guess is that race will tighten considerably. Chafee is seeking re-election in one of the two or three most Democratic states in the country and in a region that is the toughest for the GOP this year. He must survive a real primary fight just to get to the general election, so he is probably the second most vulnerable GOP incumbent. Montana’s Burns is probably third, having entered the cycle in a precarious political situation that has been greatly aggravated by his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeWine doesn’t have much baggage, but Ohio has become a disaster area for the GOP, thanks to state government scandals that have driven the Republican governor’s job-approval rating down to 14 percent. While some contend that Democrats pushed the wrong candidate out of the race to avoid a contentious primary, DeWine’s course will be very tough. Finally, Missouri’s Talent faces a very aggressive challenge from state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who knocked out an incumbent governor in a primary two years ago. This race is tied in the polls.

So Democrats have to run the table by defeating all of the most vulnerable Republicans while holding all of their own seats, including in Minnesota, where their incumbent is retiring, and in Washington state, where Sen. Maria Cantwell faces a very strong challenger. They also need to hang on to somewhat more secure open seats in Maryland and Vermont, as well as 14 other incumbents. Although not impossible in a favorable political climate, this is a very tall order.

In the House, where Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats, only about three dozen are truly in play today. So far, 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats have announced their retirements. Ten of those Republicans serve in safe GOP districts, where Democrats stand little chance of winning.

Still, he hedges his bets.

A hurricane does seem likely to hit the GOP this November. But the micro analysis shows that structural barriers in the House and Senate are protecting the Republican majorities like seawalls, and would likely withstand the surge from a Category 1, 2, or 3 storm. They probably couldn’t withstand a Category 4 or 5, though.

In 1994, the last wave election, Democrats were protected by many of the same barriers, particularly in the House. The tsunami that slammed into their party had looked perhaps 10 stories tall, not enough for the GOP to shift the necessary 40 seats. But the wave ended up being 15 stories high, and Republicans picked up 52 seats (plus two party switchers).

In four out of five elections, the micro analysis proves accurate. But in about one out of five, it doesn’t. Will this year be one of those exceptions?

It’s a strong possibility. There is a huge anti-incumbent sentiment out there that works to the disadvantage of Republicans. Further, many Republicans are disillusioned after having worked hard to get their candidates elected only to have them govern like Democrats on many key issues.

My gut tells me that the Republicans will keep the Senate by holding Tennessee and at least one of the other contested Republican seats and picking up a couple of the open Democratic seats. The power of gerrymandering should be enough to eek out a victory in the House as well but it is by no means assured.

It was not all that long ago that pundits talked about the “Republican lock” on the Electoral College, which virtually assured that Republicans would hold the White House for years to come. That was shortly before Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Since then, California–the lynchpin of that GOP “lock”–has gone for the Democrat every time.

Update: Ron Gunzberger adds this insight:

Time magazine is reporting “top strategists of both parties say privately the Republicans would probably lose the 15 seats they need to keep control of the House” and may also lose control of the US Senate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) — the architect of the 1994 GOP takeover — agrees. Gingrich said if he was leading the Dems he’d be using a two word slogan to sum up all the problems in Washington: “Had Enough?” And, speaking of the House, noted that seven self-imposed congressional term limits are up this year — and all seven incumbents are breaking their previous pledges to run again in 2006. The seven who are breaking their promises: Barbara Cubin (R-WY), Phil English (R-PA), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Tim Johnson (R-IL), Ric Keller (R-FL), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Mark Souder (R-IN) and Zach Wamp (R-TN).

Agreed on term limits. Not sure “Had enough?” is enough to defeat an incumbent in a gerrymandered district, though. In most cases, even if they have “had enough” of President Bush and even the Republican Congress, they may well like their own guy. Indeed, that’s often the case.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy Vance says:

    Further, many Republicans are disillusioned after having worked hard to get their candidates elected only to have them govern like Democrats on many key issues

    I assume by that you mean “spending a lot of money.”

  2. James Joyner says:


    “Spending a lot of money” covers a lot of sins. It’s what they’re spending it on, not just that they’re spending it. Further, the size of the government continues to grow under the Republicans.

    Beyond that, though, are a lot of little issues that add up to big things. They’ve suddenly lost their enthusiasm for term limits now that they’re in power. The fundraising scandals are eerily remnicient of Rosty and the Democrats of 1994.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    Come on, sweet sweet gridlock!

    I hope he’s right about the Senate, since I’d like to see it stay in Repub hands and the House pass to Dem control. Grant Gould ran some historical numbers suggesting you get the most fiscal discipline with a Dem President-Republican Senate combination.

    The last decade has proven, IMHO, that the GOP makes a great opposition party.

  4. RA says:

    Its time to give California back to Mexico.

  5. One thing to note at the presidential level. Starting with 1900, the republicans have won the presidency 15 times and the democrats have won it 13 times. Sounds pretty even. But consider this. The republicans in that time have pulled together 13 popular vote majorities (Bush in 2000 and Nixon in 1968 were their exceptions). The democrats have only managed to pull together a majority 6 time out of their 13 wins and four of those where FDR. The other two were Carter 1976 50.08% and LBJ in 1964 (which arguably galvanized the GOP into the modern conservative republican party). The last 100 or so years show that the democrats are the ‘special’ presidential party that needs a little help crossing the finish line. The great depression, strong third party candidates from the right and Watergate account for almost all of their victories.

    Every time I get mad at the republicans, I think about how much madder I would get at the democrat would would most likely have replaced them.

  6. James Joyner says:

    YAJ: In all but one case during that period, Bush in 2000, the candidate who won the plurality of the vote was elected president. The reason so many of them did not win a majority of the vote was the presence of a somewhat strong third party candidate. I’m not sure what that proves.

    And, yes, there has not been a Democratic presidential nominee in my lifetime that I would have preferred to his Republican opponent. But, then, that’s not setting the bar very high.