Democratic presidential nomination under way and Americans appropriately preoccupied with the Columbia tragedy this past weekend and the probability of war in the next two months, it's easy to forget that congressional elections are just 21 months away. In many ways, this election cycle will look familiar. Issues like the number of open seats, the effectiveness of candidate recruiting and the ability of the parties to shore up their potentially vulnerable incumbents will, as always, be critically important. But in other ways, thanks largely to campaign finance reform, this election will be unique.
Any reasonably astute observer of congressional elections will concede that at least temporarily -- and perhaps for a long period of time -- Democrats and their party committees will be at a significant disadvantage under the newly enacted McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan. The cold hard facts are that in the 2002 cycle, the Democratic committees raised almost as much "soft," now illegal-to-party-committees money as Republicans did. But the Republican committees raised almost twice as much hard money as the Democratic Party committees. Although Democrats decried the influence of dirty soft money in politics, they were more hooked on it than Republicans were. Democratic election lawyers warned their legislator-clients of the implications of these reform efforts; but their advice was, for the most part, rejected.
It will take time for Democrats to come to terms with the realities of this new law and adjust. But for at least one or two election cycles, expect Republicans to have a very significant financial advantage in the House and Senate. While we all have seen better-funded candidates lose campaigns, money is a huge factor and not always easy to overcome.
The other reality is that Democrats need a 12-seat gain to recapture control of the House in 2004. Twelve is not a terribly large number in a body of 435 seats. Over the past 50 years, in 13 out of 25 elections, one party or the other gained a dozen or more seats. Still, two consecutive redistricting cycles have essentially narrowed the potential playing field by creating perhaps 250 completely noncompetitive seats. For many more, one party will have a very strong advantage. The House race playing field is most likely to be in the 40-50-seat range, compared to as many as 150 in the not-too-distant past.
Just for the sake of easy arithmetic, let's project 48 competitive seats, 24 for each party. For Democrats to score a net gain of 12 seats, they would need to win 36 (or 75 percent) of those competitive races. In effect, they would have to hold every one of their own seats and then win half of the endangered Republican seats. The ultimate outcome of vulnerable House seat races rarely splits evenly between the two parties. Instead, one side usually gets the breaks; in 2002, Republicans won 29 (or 64 percent) of the 45 races listed as competitive by the Cook Political Report. In 2000, Democrats won 22 (48 percent) of 46 seats.
Still, winning three-quarters of all competitive races is tough. It does not happen in a typical, Tip O'Neill-style, all-politics-is-local, micro-political election, where no national dynamics are pushing races in favor of one party over the other.
To win back control of the House in 2004, Democrats need a political wave to break. Waves, however, don't happen frequently and are difficult to create. The most recent wave elections took place in 1958, 1966, 1974, 1980 and 1994. House Democrats do not need the tsunami-sized wave that Republicans got in 1994, but still they need a good bump.
The good news for House Republicans is if they can keep this a micro-political election of 435 individual contests, they probably will hold the House. The challenge for Republicans is once a wave starts to swell, incumbents and open-seat candidates who were not seen as vulnerable at all suddenly become endangered. Many of the normal rules of politics are temporarily suspended, often with weak, under-financed candidates winning or at least suddenly becoming formidable. For Republicans, if the economy remains weak, if a war with Iraq goes badly or the president's numbers weaken much further than they have already for any reason, then districts they do not worry about today suddenly come into play.
Thus both parties enter this new election cycle with opportunities and challenges, though Republicans have more opportunities and fewer challenges. But anyone convinced of what will happen 21 months from now obviously has not paid too much attention to politics for very long.