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What's Happening In The Northeast

(Editor's Note: the other day Jay Cost wrote a post on the Boston Globe story suggesting potential Republican vulnerability in the Northeast this year. Yesterday, we posted an email from a Republican in Connecticut providing anecdotal evidence supporting that notion. The following is Jay's repsonse to the reader who emailed.)

There is no doubt that something is going on in the Northeast. I would actually go a few steps further than you and say that not only is a tidal wave building, but it is already in existence and has been operative for several decades. If you track the GOP's shares of US Senate seats, US House seats, state senate seats and state house seats in the Northeast over the last 60 years, it becomes very clear. In 1944, the GOP held more than 60% of all state senate and house seats; they held about 55% of all US Senate and House seats. Today, all of those numbers are at or below 45%.

Your anecdotal perspective is consistent with this.

However, the real question for 2006 is: does this translate into pickups for the Democrats this year? The answer is: not necessarily. National trends like this are usually only operative in open seats. If, for instance, CT 04 were open this year, i.e. Chris Shays had decided to retire, then clearly the Democrats would pick it up because the district is Democratic. This is how they have picked up most of the seats they have acquired since 1944. As it stands, the only seat that is open in the Northeast is Boehlert's, which is more conservative than the rest of the region.

The other way to take seats that "should" belong to one party or another is to (a) run really good challengers who (b) can tie incumbents to unpopular elements of the party of the incumbent. This is how the GOP was able to get so many Southern Democratic incumbents in 1994. They ran strong challengers who tied individual representatives to the 1993 Omnibus Budget Act, the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill. The reason that you have to do this with incumbents is because there is a strong bias toward them in congressional elections. Voters tend not to associate incumbent politicians with what they dislike about their party or the government. Voters also tend not to know anything about the challengers. In 2002, for instance, only about 15% of the public could name the challenger in their district. Voters tend to view House elections in terms of what they think about the member personally -- not about the national context. And, who provides them with information about the incumbent? Almost always, it is the incumbent.

All in all, it adds up to what is known as the "incumbency advantage." In the last two election cycles, the reelection rate has averaged 99%.

All of this is why Democrats in the South could hang on for as long as they did. The national party was becoming increasingly unpopular (the first southern revolt against the Democrats occurred in 1948), the electorate in presidential elections increasingly voted Republican -- but Democratic members could survive because of weak challenges and the ability to run away from the party. The GOP did as well as they did in the South in 1994 because they ended both features of southern congressional politics. They were able to tie individual members to the national mood by referencing specific roll call votes and they offered up more appealing, better known, more viable challengers.

This year, I just do not see the Democrats as being able to do either.

First, as I mentioned in the column, recruitment is lackluster -- many of the opponents of these GOP reps have NEVER held office before. This means that they are amateurs -- and it is hard to beat a pro with an amateur. Further, and more importantly, it will be hard to tie somebody like Chris Shays to "Bush Republicanism." Ditto, I think, for Nancy Johnson (she was, after all, first elected in 1982 -- a year that was a big one for the Democrats; she has survived several Democratic years, including 1992, 1996, 1998). Bob Simmons, I think, is the only GOPer from the CT delegation who might be going down.

It is important to remember that Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson know what is going on up in CT just as much as you do, probably more so. Their jobs, after all, are entirely dependent upon gauging in advance the district mood and positioning themselves to maximize their chances of reelection. So, both Johnson and Shays have been defying the Bush Administration of late -- so they can go to their districts and say, "We agree! And we are your *independent* voices in Washington!" On election day -- the average voter in CT 05 will be mad at Bush, will still like Nancy Johnson, and will not recognize the name of the challenger. What will she do? She'll vote for Johnson.

Again, the reason for this is that House elections are not a very good representation of the national mood. Over the course of the next 10 years, I fully expect the Northeast GOP delegation to get whittled away due to the regional realignment that has been occuring for some time, but the Democrats have not put themselves in a situation to capture a lot of these seats in 2006. - Jay Cost