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Salve for the Sixth-Year Itch

Wednesday, 03 August 2005 12:00 AM

The Senate was controlled by a Republican margin of 48 to 46 during the first two years of Ike's term. It reverted to a Democratic margin of 48 to 47 with one independent after the 1954 elections. Republicans attempted to regain control in 1956 but came up short when the Independent joined the Democratic Caucus and made the margin 49 to 47.

Democrats in the House won landslide elections in 1958, 1964 and 1974. Republicans would have fewer than 200 House seats until they took control of the House in 1994. Republicans did control the Senate for six years during President Ronald W. Reagan's administration. They lost control in 1986, won it back in 1994, lost it again in 2001 and regained it in 2002.

Now let's consider the 2006 midterm elections. President George W. Bush is not as popular as were Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon – in his first term – and Reagan. Republicans won 192 House seats during the Nixon and Reagan landslides. Now they have 232 House seats.

The Senate had 55 Republicans once during Reagan's administration, twice during Bill Clinton's presidency and now in George W. Bush's second term. President Herbert Hoover's landslide victory in 1928 resulted in Republicans holding 56 seats. After the 1906 elections Republicans held 61 Senate seats for unknown reasons.

The question is whether Democrats could capture both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. Their better chance is in the Senate, where some Republican senators – Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania), Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island), Conrad Burns (Montana) and George Allen (Virginia), if Governor Mark Warner runs against him – face serious challengers.

There is also Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's open seat in Tennessee, where Democrats might have a better chance than Republicans. If Governor John Hoeven of North Dakota runs against Senator Kent Conrad, there could be a credible race. But Senator Ben Nelson seems to have gathered enough Republican support to survive in Nebraska.

The Republican Party Establishment in Washington is convinced that Representative Katherine Harris can't win the general election against Senator Bill Nelson, although she is favored to win the GOP Primary in Florida. The party's best chance for a Senate victory in Washington state against Senator Maria E. Cantwell, State Senator Dino Rossi, declined to enter a Senate race. (Rossi should be governor, but convicted felons had voted for Rossi after he had been certified the winner in 2004 and he lost.)

Bishop Keith Butler in Michigan and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in Maryland, both African-Americans, are longer shots because they both would run in very Blue States.

This being the "sixth-year itch" election, Democrats could win hands down. For nearly 125 years, in the sixth-year of an eight-year presidential term, the party in the White House usually has lost elections. Even Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had election losses. Congress went from 333 Democrats, 89 Republicans and 13 Independents to 262 Democrats, 169 Republicans and 4 Independents in that sixth-year-itch election.

Remember that Southern Democrats were elected by a one-party system and that most were conservative. It was after the 1938 election that Democrats teamed up with Republicans to form a Conservative Coalition to block many FDR initiatives. In the 1946 election, the sixth-year of the FDR-Truman administrations, Republicans captured control of the House by 246 to 188. Republicans have not held that many seats since 1946 (The high-water mark, since Republicans regained control in 1994, has been 232 seats in 2004.)

The sixth-year itch occurred when Reagan lost control of the Senate in 1996. Bill Clinton defied the sixth-year itch by gaining five House seats. That happened because Clinton had taken a very unusual beating two years into his presidency in 1994 and Republicans maintained control of the Congress in 1996. Even with the sixth-year itch, Republicans held on to Congress in 1998.

If Democrats receive breaks in the 2006 election, they could regain control of the Senate. They do have some liabilities. The AFL-CIO has split apart over the issue of too much money being spent on politics and not enough on union organizing. Democrats depend on unions in some places for voter ID and turnout. The breakup may be a problem for them.

Democrats also have controversial leadership. The Democratic Party image may not be enough to exploit George Bush's limited popularity.

Unless America is in the midst of a major recession, Democrats will not be able to recapture the House. Some Democrats could retire and some Democrats could seek other offices, but the odds still are in their favor. It is difficult to defeat a House incumbent these days, given the public campaign funds they spend, their fundraising edge and their incumbency.

Why speculate this early? Simply because the image of Congress has seldom been worse. Despite a decent record of accomplishment, the public knows little of this because many Members of the House and Senate have not adjusted to the New Media. Combined talk radio, Fox News and the Internet compete with major television networks and major newspapers in this country.

Unless and until Republicans understand how to handle the New Media, they could continue to be on the defensive and actually could lose control of the Senate. And if Congress doesn't tackle hot-button issues such as immigration and the Marriage Amendment, the House could be in jeopardy.

But then the GOP has Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. His understanding of organizational politics trumps many liabilities of the other side. It is going to be a bumpy ride for seventeen months. Who is on the truck when it makes its last stop remains to be seen. Despite the war and despite the sixth-year itch, I still wouldn't bet against George W. Bush.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.


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The Senate was controlled by a Republican margin of 48 to 46 during the first two years of Ike's term. It reverted to a Democratic margin of 48 to 47 with one independent after the 1954 elections. Republicans attempted to regain control in 1956 but came up short when the...
Wednesday, 03 August 2005 12:00 AM
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