Was ’06 a Starting Point for Democrats or Was It Their High-water Mark?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 22, 2007 · 12:10 AM EDT

Click here for the accompanying Close Calls chart.

We are just a couple of months into the 2008 election cycle, but already House targets for next year are being thrown about wildly, with the usual supportive demographic and electoral data.

Unfortunately, all numbers aren’t equally useful in discovering who is at serious risk of losing in 2008 and who isn’t. Context is necessary and most often decisive.

Long-term demographic shifts are crucial in understanding how our political system is evolving and what challenges the parties face. It matters a great deal if white Southerners are changing their voting patterns, or if a group, such as Hispanics or younger voters, is turning out to vote at a higher rate.

But demographic changes don’t occur overnight, and abnormal elections can seem to produce dramatic demographic shifts that aren’t really dramatic at all. Abnormal elections also produce odd, and frequently misleading, vote totals.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is now arguing that many suburbs are moving away from their traditional Republican bent and toward the Democrats. I’m certainly not going to disagree with him, since I recently wrote about the GOP’s problems in Bergen County, N.J., a prime example of the Republican Party’s problems in suburbia.

And yes, many of the suburban districts that the DCCC chairman cites as targets in 2008, including those held currently by Republican Reps. Mark Kirk (Illinois’ 10th), Mike Ferguson (New Jersey’s 7th), Jim Gerlach (Pennsylvania’s 6th), Christopher Shays (Connecticut’s 4th) and Joe Knollenberg (Michigan’s 9th), look increasingly tantalizing for Democrats.

So Van Hollen and the DCCC are right — but only to a point. The problem for handicappers is that the ’06 results may well demonstrate just the opposite of what the DCCC chairman is arguing: how difficult it will be for Democrats to win those districts next time.

The fundamental question is whether November’s results constitute a starting point for calculating additional Democratic opportunities in 2008 or, conversely, whether those results mark the Democrats’ high-water mark in an aberrant election year.

Democrats will argue that many of their near-miss challengers came close without much national financial support, and that many of those candidates had relatively little political experience. You can be sure that the DCCC will argue that if those same challengers run again, they will be much stronger candidates. Just as important, the DCCC may be able to recruit better-credentialed candidates for those same districts in 2008, and that also will put the incumbent Republicans at greater risk.

Those are both good points, and I accept them readily. But it still doesn’t guarantee that Democrats are going to take over any of those districts in which they came close in 2006. In fact, history suggests that, except in a few cases, the Democratic near-misses last year are not going to perform better, or as well, in 2008.

Probably the best way to show the Democrats’ challenge next year is to look at what happened in 1996, when Republicans made the same kind of argument about allegedly vulnerable Democrats that Democrats are making today about Republicans who had a close call in November.

The accompanying table lists 46 Democrats who were elected in 1994 with 55 percent of the vote or less. Two years later, with Republicans salivating at their presumed opportunities and making a major effort to win most of those seats, Democrats retained 41 of those districts. Only two Democratic incumbents seeking re-election (out of 38) went down to defeat, while three other Democratic open seats flipped to the GOP.

Let’s take a look at a few 1994/1996 re-matches to make the point even more clearly. Michigan Rep. Sander Levin (D) was held to 52 percent by GOP challenger John Pappageorge in 1994, but two years later Levin won with 57.4 percent. Alabama Rep. Bud Cramer (D) squeezed by Wayne Parker (R) in 1994 with 50.5 percent. Two years later, Cramer drew 55.7 percent.

In 1994, California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman won re-election with a scant 48 percent of the vote against Susan Brooks (R). Two years later, against Brooks, Harman was re-elected with 52.5 percent. Remember former Minnesota Democratic Rep. Bill Luther? He beat Republican Tad Jude by 550 votes in 1994 (49.9 percent to 49.7 percent). Two years later, Luther beat Jude again, this time by almost 35,000 votes, with 55.8 percent.

Maybe the best example of this phenomenon occurred in what was then California’s 24th district. In 1994, then-Rep. Tony Beilenson (D) barely held off GOP challenger Rich Sybert by about 3,500 votes, 49.4 percent to 47.5 percent. Two years later, Sybert was back, but Beilenson wasn’t. Democrats nominated Brad Sherman, an accountant whom, I expect, would acknowledge that he is not known for his flamboyance or charisma. But that didn’t deter district voters or Sherman, who held the seat for his party with 49.4 percent (the same percentage as Beilenson) to Sybert’s 43.6 percent.

The 1994 election constituted a Republican tidal wave, which means that, by definition, it was an aberration. Two years later, the political environment returned to normal, and Democrats who looked ripe for the taking because of their narrow 1994 victories suddenly looked stronger.

In fact, those Democrats were stronger, in part because they had survived the difficult year and in part because the Republican challengers weren’t as strong as they seemed without a stiff wind at their backs.

Don’t get me wrong. History suggests Democrats will pick off a few of those districts that they narrowly lost last year, especially if some of them become open.

In 1996, one Democrat who survived a close call in 1994 lost in a re-match: Missouri Rep. Harold Volkmer (against GOP challenger Kenny Hulshof). The other Democratic incumbent to lose after a narrow win in 1994 was freshman Rep. Mike Ward (Ky.), who lost to Anne Northup after squeezing past Susan Stokes two years earlier.

Democrats had almost an ideal political environment in 2006. The election was a midterm contest with an unpopular president, an even more unpopular war, a GOP that was damaged by ethics issues and a Republican Congress that was not held in high regard by voters. In addition, independent voters, who often split roughly evenly between the parties, went overwhelmingly Democratic.

Could the political environment favor Democrats as strongly next year? Of course. Is it reasonable to assume that 2008 will favor Democrats at least as strongly as last year’s midterm did? Probably not.

Democratic strategists talk as if 2006 was a starting point for the party’s 2008 candidates, but it is not very likely that voters who stuck with Republican Congressional candidates in 2006 will vote for Democratic House challengers in 2008. Or, put another way, if Democrats couldn’t beat Shays, and GOP Reps. Dave Reichert (Washington’s 8th) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio’s 2nd) last cycle, they may not be able to beat them next time.

If the 2008 contest is another referendum on the Iraq War and President Bush, Democrats are likely to do very well again. And yes, presidential years do bring out additional voters, and those “casual” voters — many of them independents — may well see Democrats as the party of change. Democratic candidates could get the support of many of those voters.

But surely it is too soon — and overly simplistic — merely to list 2006 vote results and present them as some sort of inevitable starting point for Democratic challengers who cut into normal GOP margins last cycle. And if history is any guide, many ’06 Democratic repeaters will find the going much rougher next year than they expect.