February 11, 2006
Beware of Microscopic Majorities

By Charlie Cook

A half-dozen years ago, Mel Gibson starred in What Women Want, an inane movie about a guy who suddenly could read the minds of women he came close to. That silly film comes to mind these days when I listen to what Democrats say, because I find myself wondering what Democrats really want.

Political parties always try hard to win as many races as possible in each election. What might be in their best interest is some times a different story. So the question arises: Do Democrats really want to win majorities in the Senate and the House in 2006?

As ridiculous as that question may sound, consider the following: Let’s say Democrats are able to defeat Republican Sens. Conrad Burns in Montana, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Jim Talent in Missouri, plus win the Senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist of Tennessee, plus hold on to every one of their own seats, including the most problematic— an open seat in Minnesota and Maria Cantwell’s seat in Washington. Those successes would give the Democrats the barest, 51-vote majority and, along with it, the power to investigate and subpoena. But they could do very little else, particularly with President Bush in the White House.

And what if Democrats captured all 21 of the House seats that Republicans seem in danger of losing and kept all 11 Democratic seats that now appear vulnerable? They would have a microscopic, five-seat, 223-212 majority.

Notice that in both scenarios, I deliberately avoided the word “control.” A Senate majority with 51 seats or a House majority with 223 is hardly in control of anything. Again, Democrats would gain the power to subpoena and investigate, but little else.

Could Democrats win larger majorities? In the Senate, only one other GOP seat is even theoretically vulnerable, that of Arizona’s Jon Kyl. So 52-48 is the very best the Democrats could possibly do. In the House, another half-dozen GOP seats might flip, but that is very unlikely as long as the number of Republican retirements stays low. Democrats have been unable to recruit top-tier candidates to challenge some of the most potentially vulnerable Republicans, leaving incumbents such as Anne Northup (KY-03) and Jon Porter (NV-03) to face second-rate Democratic opponents.

The worst situation for any party in a legislative chamber is to have the responsibility to govern without the power to do so. If Democrats gain a majority in each chamber, they’ll find themselves sharing blame with President Bush.

When voters are upset and when one party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House, fingers can point in only one direction. If Democrats gain a chamber, some of the air will start leaking from that “time for a change” balloon, and it would be awfully hard to reinflate.

On the other hand, if Democrats go into 2008 just a few seats shy of a Senate majority, their chances of scoring a meaningful win in that chamber, as well as capturing the White House, would be substantial. (In 2008, 21 Republican Senate seats, but just 12 Democratic ones, will be on the line.)

And in the House, drawing on the momentum of a 10- or 12-seat gain this year, national Democrats might be able to recruit strong 2008 candidates in districts where local party leaders have given up this year. While Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel has done his best to recruit first-rate Democratic challengers, the untold story is that it has been 24 years since Democrats went into a congressional election with a real wind at their backs.

The chances of Democrats coming out on top in the 2008 races for real control of the Senate, the House, and the White House will be better if, in the interim, Democrats have not diluted the voters’ desire for change by sharing responsibility for governing.

So while we ought to expect the Democrats to go full tilt in this year’s elections, if they make gains but come up just short in both chambers, they may lay the groundwork for a much bigger and more consequential triumph in 2008.

Charlie Cook is a weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report.

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