Do the Democrats Need to Nationalize the Midterm Elections?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 6, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

I often get asked whether Democrats will be able to nationalize this year’s midterm elections. It’s both an important and reasonable question, since the answer will determine what kind of year the parties will have in November.

But, alas, it’s the wrong question to ask.

The better question is whether Republicans will be able to localize the midterm elections.

Most election years start off with a bias toward localized elections. When voters are content, they are inclined toward the status-quo and feel no urgency to fire their elected representatives. When they are confused — often because control of the government is divided, and they don’t know who to blame — they also generally stick with incumbents, who are usually better financed.

In both of those general circumstances, voters tend toward inertia, which benefits those already holding power.

But with Republicans holding majorities in both chambers of Congress since 1994, and with voters showing great dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation and with the performance of the president and Congress, this year’s midterms will be about change.

While Democrats can try to feed the electorate’s desire for change, the mood already exists. They don’t need to create it. That means the midterms already have been nationalized, and that’s the main reason why so many Republican incumbents are showing low poll numbers.

If the 2006 elections were about individual Members and their particular challengers, Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) would be leading challenger Claire McCaskill (D) by 6 points to 8 points (maybe even more) rather than running even.

If this year’s elections currently were localized, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) would have a large early lead over her opponent Mary Jo Kilroy (D), rather than a narrow one. Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) would be a strong favorite for re-election rather than only even money. And Democrats wouldn’t even be able to talk with a straight face about threatening Reps. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) and John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), or of stealing retiring Rep. Mark Green’s open Wisconsin Congressional seat from the GOP.

Democrats might benefit from a 10-point plan or a coherent, unified strategy on Iraq, but they don’t need it to create a “national” election. The public’s mood has already done it.

Given that, the real question is whether Republicans will be able to “localize” the ’06 midterms between now and November — whether they can re-elect their incumbents despite that general political atmosphere, which strongly favors change and the Democrats.

The answer to that question will determine whether Republicans can minimize their losses in both chambers, and even whether they will still control the House after November.

Localizing would require Republicans to change the nature of the cycle. In other words, the burden is on them to alter the natural path of this year’s midterm elections.

Recently, Republicans have proved better at what they like to call the “blocking and tackling” of elections — raising and spending money, getting out their voters and running the sort of aggressive campaigns that have allowed them to win considerable majorities in Congress. They’ve used their incumbent advantages well.

But this cycle is different. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is unusually aggressive, both in tactics and fundraising. And unlike the past decade, it has a strong wind at its back.

So it’s up to Republicans to try to re-create past environments, by turning voters’ attention away from President Bush, the war in Iraq, the control of U.S. ports and Jack Abramoff’s and Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) legal problems, and by making the midterm elections about the Democratic candidates in each race.

It’s pretty simple then what the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP candidates must do. They must make Democratic candidates unacceptable to voters. Whether that means uncovering personal ethics issues involving Democrats or demonizing them on national security or other issues, it’s up to Republicans to change the current trajectory of the elections.

If that happens, it won’t be until late — certainly after Labor Day and probably not until October — when most races truly engage, when voters start paying close attention to races, and when Republican attacks will either discredit Democratic challengers or fall on deaf ears.

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) continues to insist that it’s wrong to portray the ’06 contests as nationalized. “It always gets back to local elections, local politics, and that’s how we are going to win a Republican majority in 2006, again,” he told NBC “Nightly News’” Chip Reid last week.

That’s simply not true. The 1966, 1982 and 1994 midterms certainly were not “local” events, and insisting otherwise doesn’t make Reynolds right or enhance his credibility.