House 2008: Blowback or Another Tidal Wave?
by Jonathan Singer, Fri Aug 24, 2007 at 04:50:52 PM EDT
Back in March I took a look back at history to try to get a gauge of whether House Democrats need expect a blowback this cycle, as some have argued, or if instead the party has an opportunity to expand it's majority in the chamber -- perhaps even significantly so. In short, following the four most recent midterm wave elections dating back to the 1960s, the party that previously picked up large numbers of seats lost back only about 10 percent of those new seats two years later. Moreover, in two of the four cycles that followed those midterm wave elections, the previous victor actually picked up more seats, though by no means at the rate of the previous tidal wave.
This week The Cook Political Report's House editor David Wasserman (sorry, subscription required) also takes a look at history, focusing in on potential similarities between the situation faced by the Republicans in 1996 following their historic win in the 1994 midterms with the situation faced today by the Democrats. Here Wasserman homes in directly on retirements and open seats.
It is remarkable that at this point in the cycle, fewer than 2 percent of House incumbents have made plans to leave the chamber after the end of their current term. During the late summers of 2005 and 2003, the numbers of seats in which incumbents had confirmed their departure hovered in the low teens. In the 2006 and 2004 cycles, the numbers of open House seats were ultimately 33 and 31, respectively.
Still, if history is any guide, we should expect a significant number of Republican lawmakers to call it quits in 2008 and a considerably higher incumbent retention rate for Democrats. In the vast majority of cases over the past century, when a party has suffered a major (25+ House seat) loss in a midterm election, a higher percentage of the losing party's members have opted to step down in the succeeding presidential year. This pattern confirms the obvious: that new-found minority status provides House members less incentive to stay put.
After the last party takeover of Congress in 1994, wave-riding Republicans saw 21 in their ranks make plans to step down, while the minority Democrats saw 28 in their ranks bid farewell. Ultimately, Republicans picked off 10 open Democratic seats in the 1996 House elections, while Democrats picked up just four open GOP seats. Although Democrats held a vast advantage in scoring incumbent defeats, Republican net gain of six open seats seriously impeded Democrats' efforts to rebound into the majority that year.
Even though the cumulative total of open seats remains fairly low at this point, Republicans are concerned about last week's developments [with three Republican Congressmen retiring, at least of whom unexpectedly] for reasons much broader than the emergence of three new pieces of turf to defend.
Indeed, the floodgate of retirements has not yet arrived for House Republicans, a fact they should be extremely thankful for. But Wasserman is completely correct in stating that although the floodgates have not yet opened up it does not mean that they will not later on this cycle -- even fairly soon, perhaps before the House goes back into session next month.
And not to insinuate that money means everything in these races, but the specter of widespread retirements from within the House GOP ranks would be all the more problematic for the party given the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee trails the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by more than a 10-to-1 margin at this juncture in terms of cash-on-hand. Naturally, open seat races -- particularly those in competitive and even marginally competitive districts -- can cost the party defending those seats huge amounts of money.
Given all of this, is it possible that the House Democrats will see another tidal wave election at their hands rather than a blowback election? It would certainly be a rare event in American history; by my estimate, the last time such an event occurred -- a big midterm victory followed by a victory of nearly as large a magnitude two years later -- was in 1950 and 1952, when the Republicans picked up 28 seats and 22 seats in the House, respectively. The last time it occurred for the Democrats was 1930 and 1932, when the Democrats picked up 52 seats and 101 seats in the House, respectively. (Perhaps 1910 and 1912, when the Democrats picked up 58 and 61 seats in the House, respectively, are better examples as the Democrats didn't actually gain control of the House in 1930.) But is such a second tidal wave possible? I do not by any means intend to give the impression that the Democrats have this election won already. However, I wouldn't rule out such a historic shift occurring next fall, either -- so let's keep on pushing.