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Jewish World Review March 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Can GOP Beat 'Midterm Curse' This November? | If the 2002 elections follow historical patterns, Republicans will get clobbered, lose control of the House and fall further behind in the Senate. But the pattern may well be broken.

Since 1900, the party controlling the White House has lost House seats in every off-year election except three -1902, 1934 and 1998.

The average loss in the first off-year election for a new president is 35 House seats and three Senate seats.

But the House Republican campaign chief, Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), thinks several factors will make this year different. And Howard Wolfson, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, concurs that history can't be relied upon.

First, according to Davis, parties in control of the White House usually lose big in off years because new presidents tend to bring large numbers of new Members in on their coattails and they are vulnerable in the next election.

"[President] Bush didn't sweep anyone in," Davis said in an interview, "so there's no one to be swept out."

Indeed, in 2000 the GOP lost two House seats and four Senate seats. Republicans have been steadily losing House strength since 1996, following their 52-seat triumph in 1994.

It's not entirely true that new presidents normally have coattails. In fact, in close elections - 1960, 1992 and 2000 - their party may actually lose seats. Or, as in 1976, pick up just one seat.

And in the next election - as in 1962, 1978 and 1994 - they may keep on losing. Democrats lost 22 House seats in 1960 and another one in 1962. In 1978 they lost 15. In 1992, Democrats lost 10 House seats.

This trend could persist this year too. But Davis' second claim is that the modern public likes divided government and votes against the party in the White House to establish it.

"But there already is divided government with the Senate in Democratic hands," he said, "so voters feel no need to vote Democratic to provide a check on the President."

Third, he said, voter intensity is usually with the out-party in midterms, but GOP polls indicate that those declaring themselves most likely to vote are Republicans.

And finally, Davis noted, historically voters who dislike a president use the midterm elections to take out their anger on his party's Congressional candidates.

But this year, he said, "The only people who are mad at Bush are those who would never vote for us anyway. The President's popularity suggests we can avoid the midterm curse."

This claim - that fewer people than normal are unhappy with Bush - is a reverse twist on the widespread assumption that Bush's popularity as a wartime president will help Congressional candidates of his party.

And on top of all that, Davis believes that reapportionment will give Republicans a net pickup of as many as eight seats, meaning that Democrats will have to gain 14 seats in November to win control of the House.

Wolfson disputes Davis' reapportionment estimate, citing such experts as Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg and the National Journal's Charlie Cook, who put the GOP's advantage at two seats or less.

Wolfson said, "History doesn't win seats, and we certainly aren't relying on abstract concepts this year." Instead, he said, Democrats will wage customized campaigns in contested districts - but apparently with some common themes.

He told me on Fox News, "When we do polling in districts around the country and we ask people, 'What do you think about the fact that your incumbent Republican Congressman voted a huge, $250 million retroactive tax break for the Enron Corporation?' they are aghast.

"I mean, this is the most devastating vote in a political sense for the Republicans since the Gingrich budget [of 1995]. And we're going to make sure they pay for it."

Wolfson was referring to the first GOP stimulus package that passed the House last fall, repealing the alternative minimum tax for corporations and granting retroactive payments to companies that paid the tax over the past decade.

Democrats picked up three House seats in 1996 running against the 1995 partial shutdown of the federal government and an alleged $270 billion cut in Medicare pushed through under then Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Wolfson acknowledged that Democrats have some work to do making voters as aware of the corporate alternative minimum tax cuts as they were of the 1995 shutdown.

Democrats have also served notice that they plan to campaign against GOP plans to privatize Social Security even though the Bush administration and House Republicans won't push for Social Security reform this year.

Democrats have yet to figure out how to exploit another ripe issue - Bush's tax cuts. An Ipsos-Reid poll released last week indicated that by more than 70 percent, voters favor delaying the tax cuts to pay for a prescription drug benefit for seniors, benefits for the unemployed, education improvements and anti-terror expenses.

However, top Democratic leaders have shied away from calling for the postponement of the cuts, apparently out of (justified) fear that the GOP will accuse them of wanting to "raise" taxes.

I'd say the main factor in this year's elections is the absence - so far - of compelling Democratic issues. Even the economy seems to favor the GOP. So history just might be ignored.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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