Legislative and Political Report

No Mandate for Change in 2004 Congressional Elections

Handful of races will decide control of House and Senate.

Frank Voyack, Legislative/Political Representative
Air Line Pilot
, September 2004, p.32

Economists sometimes refer to Stein’s Law, which simply states the following: "Things that can’t go on forever, don’t." If applied to politics, that might suggest that the narrow majorities and the relatively even divide between the two parties in the U.S. Congress have now reached a point that is increasingly unsustainable.

In short, something’s gotta give. The U.S. Congress has become a caricature. It looks and plays the part of a dysfunctional family incapable of effectively dealing with the pressing issues at hand. One major reason for this development is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats possess anything resembling a mandate. The hope of clearly defining a legislative agenda and enacting it into law is unimaginable under these circumstances.

It’s now been 10 years since the Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives. On the Senate side, Republicans barely regained a majority of seats after the 2002 midterm elections. Yet, in both chambers, the margins remain so frustratingly slim that most legislative activity is reduced to little more than a rhetorical exercise.

That’s one reason why this year’s elections have often been portrayed as the inevitable clash and showdown that just might finally produce a decisive and unambiguous majority for the winning party.

How real is this scenario?

Only 6 months ago, Republican control of the House of Representatives appeared rock solid, with good reason to believe that their thin 11-seat margin would multiply considerably. Early recruiting failures, fundraising difficulties, and particularly redistricting all led observers to believe that the House Democrats had the political noose around their necks. Yet the Democrats slipped out with two special-election victories—Rod Chandler (Ky.–2) and Stephanie Herseth (S.D.–1)—in seats vacated by Republicans and in districts that widely supported George Bush in 2000. Buoyed by these gains, Democrats are unusually optimistic about their chances.

Still, many forces work in the Republicans favor, not the least of which is that House incumbents have routinely had a reelection rate of 98 percent over the last decade; and redistricting has thoroughly tightened the grip most incumbents have on their seats. Even though 435 House races will occur this year, the reality is that probably no more than two dozen can be genuinely considered competitive.

For Democrats, redistricting by the Republican-controlled Texas legislature put five incumbents in peril: Max Sandlin (Tex.–19), Nick Lampson (Tex.–2), Chet Edwards (Tex.–17), Martin Frost (Tex.–32), and Charlie Stenholm (Tex.–19). The latter two will each face a Republican incumbent (Pete Sessions and Randy Neugebauer) in heavily conservative districts. Other endangered Democratic incumbents are Dennis Moore (Kans.-3), Jim Matheson (Utah–2), Tim Holden (Pa.–17), Jim Marshall (Ga.–3), and Baron Hill (Ind.–9). Additionally, Democrats will have a tough time holding onto Kentucky’s 4th, where Rep. Ken Lucas is retiring, and Louisiana’s 7th and Pennsylvania’s 13th, where Reps. Chris John and Joe Hoeffel are leaving to run for the U.S. Senate.

House Republicans aren’t without their own worries when it comes to protecting incumbents. Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.–1), Max Burns (Ga.–12), Rob Simmons (Conn.–2), Jon Porter (Nev.–3), and Jim Gerlach (Pa.–6) are among the most vulnerable. Other potential trouble spots for Republicans exist in a number of open seats, such as those currently held by Jennifer Dunn (Wash.–8), Scott McInnis (Colo.–3), Billy Tauzin (La.–3), and Jack Quinn (N.Y.–27).

Undoubtedly, a handful of other races are marginally competitive, but this is the target list of contests and by most calculations—2 months before the elections—the Republicans appear to be positioned to hold onto their narrow majority.

Like their House counterparts, not too long ago Senate Republicans were also brimming with confidence, convinced that their numbers would grow in the 2004 elections.

Holding a slight 51–49 edge, Republicans were downright giddy over the Democrats’ run of misfortune, suffering five retirements—John Edwards (N.C.), Fritz Hollings (S.C.), Zell Miller (Ga.), Bob Graham (Fla.), and John Breaux (La.)—all in southern states that Bush carried handily.

But the Democrats are reasonably certain that they will prevail in at least a couple of those southern contests and at the same time throw the Republicans on the defensive in three of their own open seats—those of Peter Fitzgerald (Ill.), Don Nickles (Okla.), and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.).

Each side admittedly has one Senate incumbent in real danger—Democrat Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and several other races that could potentially grow competitive—those of Barbara Boxer (D–Calif.), Patty Murray (D–Wash.), Kit Bond (R–Mo.), Arlen Specter (R–Pa.), Jim Bunning (R–Ky.), and Russ Feingold (D–Wisc.).

Barring an unusually strong wind blowing in favor of one party or the other, this small confined group of races will again decide both the House and the Senate majorities. The contest will probably shake out more or less evenly, which means the Republicans will hold onto their slight majorities, though no one can discount a political lightning strike that leaves the Democrats with a fragile majority of their own in one, or maybe even both, chambers.

In either case, these small majorities will continue to put a burden on the legislative process and contribute to the overall coarsening of American politics. The electorate as a whole, while apprehensive about this arrangement, is nonetheless distrustful of giving either party a decidedly upper hand.

Therefore, the only thing that appears certain with respect to the outcome of this year’s congressional elections is that no mandate for change will exist and no broad majorities in Congress will result, even if we do agree with Stein’s Law that the current situation can’t go on forever.