GOP REDUCED TO A REGIONAL PARTY

 

ELECTION INSIDER

GOP Reduced To A Regional Party

Political pundits are making outlandish predictions about Democratic gains in the House in 2008, in some cases predicting a 30+ seat gain. It is true that on both the macro and micro levels, Republicans face a daunting, if not impossible, task to hold their own this year or to be competitive in the 2010 election. However, the major factor limiting the potential for widespread Democratic gains this year is the number of seats already gained since the 2004 election. It will be difficult to add a large number of seats, since the party has amassed 236 members, a gain of 33 seats over one general election and subsequent special elections. Democrats now control 54.3% of the House seats, compared with 45.7% for Republicans. Even if the double-digit generic ballot lead holds through November, it is likely that the ceiling on gains is about 20 seats.

Several fundamental changes have adversely transformed the electoral process for Republicans. Here are some of the macro factors that portend Democratic control, at least until the next reapportionment.

STRENGTH OF DEMOCRATIC INCUMBENTS

Since the 1994 election, if GOP redistricting–imposed incumbent-versus-incumbent races are removed from the equation only three Democratic incumbents have lost reelection bids. Conversely, 54 Republican incumbents have lost reelection bids (52 net of redistricting). Twenty-one Republican incumbents lost in 2006, and at least 20 more are in jeopardy in 2008. Remarkably, 99% of Democratic incumbents, notwithstanding partisan gerrymandering, have been reelected since 1994 when 34 Democrats lost their seats.

Several freshmen Democrats face reelection battles in Republican-leaning districts, but the early prediction of battleground erosion has given way to an assessment that, at most, only five to eight Democratic freshmen face serious reelection battles.

Conversely, far more Republican incumbents appear to be in serious trouble as the general election approaches.

OPEN SEATS

Republican success in retaining the House from 1996 to 2004 was based on victories in open-seat contests (defined as races without an incumbent candidate). After a net gain of 18 open seats in 1994, when the Republicans regained control of the House for the first time since 1952, Republican success continued as they scored a net gain of eight more open seats in five subsequent election cycles.

However, this trend came to an end in 2006, when Democrats regained the edge in open seats, with eight notable victories. Several of those wins were achieved in so-called red states of Florida , Arizona , Colorado , Texas , and North Carolina . The improbable success in red states continued in 2008, with victories in Mississippi and Louisiana and the Republican-leaning suburban district in Illinois formerly held by ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Meanwhile, a historically unprecedented series of retirements have jeopardized 10 or more Republican open seats in the 2008 cycle. That list includes prototypical suburban districts where Democrats have seen substantial gains in recent years.

REGIONALISM

Republicans are now in jeopardy of evolving into a regional party with a solid foundation in the South and to a lesser extent in the rural Midwest and Rocky Mountain states . While becoming an endangered minority in the remainder of the country.

When the Republicans gained control of the House in 1994, they held a majority of seats in the Midwest, South and West and 33 of 66 House districts in the Mid-Atlantic states . Clearly, the Republicans were a national party. Moreover, Republicans gained 10 House seats in southern and border states two years later, in 1996. Still, Democrats retained 43% of all southern and border congressional districts after the ’96 election.

The outcome of elections since 1996 has exposed a far larger problem for Republicans, than Democrats faced in the South. More than 46% of Republican House seats emanate from southern and border states, possessing only 28% of House seats nationally.

Republicans now control only 25.9% of congressional districts in the East, which translates into a 41-seat deficit. At their nadir, Democrats still held more than 40% of all seats in southern and border states .

A combination of regionalism, incumbent resilience and a highly favorable concentration of open seats is likely to result in further losses for the GOP in 2008. In the rapidly growing western region, Republicans hold only 41.8% of all House districts, an astounding reversal from 1994, when they held 57% of western House districts.

If the Republicans are isolated as a regional party, dominant in the South, competitive in the Midwest but hopelessly outnumbered on both coasts, their chances of regaining a majority of the House in the near future are remote.

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