Huge GOP Gains Weren’t Always Inevitable This Year

Stuart Rothenberg July 30, 2010 · 10:45 AM EDT

Sometimes, you can almost hear the conventional wisdom and expectations shift, even when they are based on faulty premises.

I’ve heard dozens of times over the past few months that large Democratic losses in the House were inevitable this year because of sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.

Indeed, on Monday’s edition of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” host Joe Scarborough, a former GOP Congressman from Florida, echoed that point, asserting that a “realignment” in the House was inevitable this year, even if unemployment were at 4 percent.

The reality is quite different. When I first started talking to Republican and Democratic insiders in December 2008, none of them believed that anything was “inevitable” in November 2010.

Throughout the winter of 2008-2009 and the spring of 2009, strategists for both parties acknowledged that midterms were usually challenging for the party holding the White House.

Democrats noted that the combination of Republican retirements, Democratic incumbency and financial advantages, and new Democratic opportunities — resulting from demographic changes during the decade and stronger recruiting in GOP seats previously neglected — would keep their net losses low, probably in the single digits.

After losing 51 House seats over two disastrous election cycles, Republicans knew they had plenty of opportunities and held on to the hope that long-term trends would create a favorable climate for their resurgence. But they expressed concerns about the damage to their party’s brand and were deflated when, in late March, an upstate New York special election was won by a Democrat.

In May 2009, my newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, noted that “small Republican gains would seem the most likely outcome” of the midterms, adding that the House “is not at risk in next year’s elections.”

No wonder GOP prospects were so limited. President Barack Obama’s job approval in an April 2009 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey stood at 61 percent approve/30 percent disapprove, and equal percentages of respondents (43 percent) said the country was headed in the right direction versus on the wrong track — a dramatic improvement from the previous November.

But while Democrats initially talked about keeping their losses to fewer than 10 seats, somewhere during the summer that number grew to a dozen and then to 15 seats.

In mid-September, I wrote in the Rothenberg Political Report that prospective GOP gains ranged from “only a handful of seats to a couple of dozen or more, depending on how things develop over the next year.” This much wider range reflected deteriorating national conditions for Democrats — Obama’s sliding approval numbers, declining right direction/wrong track results and a worsening in the Democratic Party’s image.

My point in resurrecting all these numbers and projections is that it was not always inevitable that Republicans would make large House gains, no matter what you may read and hear now.

Yes, House midterm election losses by the president’s party have often been substantial, as in 2006, 1994, 1982, 1974, 1966 and 1958. But at other times, the president’s party hasn’t done nearly so poorly, with either small gains or losses of fewer than 15 seats in 2002, 1998, 1990, 1978 and 1934.

Indeed, as many of us have repeatedly noted, the president’s party has gained seats in two of the past three midterm elections.

Let’s be clear about where we all would be if unemployment were actually at 4 percent right now.

Most of the hand-wringing about jobs and the economy would be gone, stronger employment numbers would mean a more vibrant economy (which almost certainly would mean higher federal and state revenues and lower deficits) and polling undoubtedly would show the president with better numbers, Congress with a higher approval rating and the Democratic Party more popular than it is now. Because of that, the huge enthusiasm gap that now exists and is likely to fuel GOP gains in November would be much smaller or nonexistent.

All of that would likely mean far smaller Democratic losses in the fall. Nobody, but nobody, would be talking about the inevitability of huge Republican House gains (or the possible loss of the House) if that were the case.

Actions, indeed, do have consequences. In this case, the combination of an aggressive Democratic agenda, a weak jobs recovery and a large deficit has created a political environment very different from the one 18 months ago, when Democrats won a special election in New York’s open 20th district by demonizing Republicans for waffling on, then opposing, Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

It’s very difficult to imagine Republican gains in the House of fewer than two dozen seats, and my own newsletter, after going race by race, recently placed likely GOP gains in the range of 28 to 33 seats, if not higher.

The House surely is at great risk, and anyone who asserts that Democrats are certain to maintain their majority after November is simply not worth listening to on the subject. The trajectory of this election cycle is clear. But don’t delude yourself. It didn’t have to be this way.