Sabato's Crystal Ball

The 2004 Lineup for Congress and Statehouses

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 25th, 2004

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The Crystal Ball has looked anew at the races for Senate, House, and Governor in ’04. Not surprisingly, as the race for president has become very competitive, the Senate looks less like a slam-dunk for the Republicans. There are only a handful of real races, as usual, and presidential coattail could matter in many of them. Let’s go to the Summary Board:

Senate

Current Senate Line-up: 51 R, 49 D (counting Jeffords)

There are always surprises later in the Senate season, with an incumbent or two in unexpected trouble, for instance. But for now, these ten seats are where the Senate action is for 2004. Georgia can be safely counted as a GOP pick-up, but the other four Southern Democratic open seats are question marks until the candidate choices are made. As an early guess, the Crystal Ball sees the total GOP haul as perhaps two or three of the five. If Bush comes back strong in the fall, and wins the South in a landslide, then the GOP might, just might, get four of the five.

As for the three open Republican seats, Democrats have jumped out to an early lead in all of them. Our early-line guess is that the Democrats will win two of the three in the end, but a three-fer cannot be ruled out. Illinois is the Democrats’ best shot, followed by Colorado, with Oklahoma last but still very competitive. As always, we give a slight edge to just about any incumbent, whether a junior one (Lisa Murkowski) or a senior one (Tom Daschle). But both Murkowski and Daschle could be beaten, and they face tight contests.

Our loyal readers can add this up quickly: the GOP has an edge for control of the Senate, but it is not an overwhelmingly one anymore. Large gains for the GOP are now probably out of the question – unless Bush roars back in the fall. Even then, it’s hard to see the GOP total getting past 54 or 55.

More likely, the Republicans will be lucky to add one or two seats to their current 51. And how could the Democrats score an upset and regain control? Democrats could keep their Southern losses to two seats (possible), win two or three of the GOP open seats (very possible), and hold Daschle while defeating Murkowski (possible). And let’s not forget that if Kerry wins, Democrats will need a net gain of a single seat (50-50) to run the Senate with a Democratic vice president.

Suddenly, the Senate battle has gotten much more interesting.

House

Current House Line-Up: 228 R, 206 D (counting Sanders), one R vacancy in S.D. (leaning D in June election)

The House is far less likely than the Senate to change hands in November. Given the nearly-automatic pick-up of 4-5 seats in redistricted Texas for the GOP, the odds are the Republican majority will expand rather than contract. Still, presidential coattails can matter, and if John Kerry wins the general election handily, the Republican margin could become very thin. Should George Bush manage a popular vote victory, the Republicans would nearly be guaranteed an enhanced House majority.

Introducing the Dirty Thirty

Now that the national House picture has begun to crystallize, it is clear that 2004 promises to continue the trend of a shrinking playing field of competitive districts and competitive races. As predicted, the chief side effect of now-completed redistricting for the decade has emerged as a striking decline in the number of truly “swing” districts across the nation, as many seats that were perennial targets of both parties in the 1990s have given way to incumbent-friendly, strongly partisan districts where party primaries are often tantamount to election. Majorities in state legislatures and even on bipartisan redistricting commissions, loath to place congressional party allies in tight races, have significantly altered the nature of the battle for the House for years to come.

Under these new circumstances, the Crystal Ball recognizes that large shifts in party makeup of the House are much less likely than they would have been in past decades, and that the radar screen of congressional races is simply unlikely to show the quantity of competitive contests it once produced consistently every two years. In 2004, the number of “toss up” House races may even be similar to the number of too-close-to-call Senate contests! For Democrats, currently facing a deficit of 22 seats in the House following a miserable 2002 midterm performance, this bodes poorly: Party leaders privately acknowledge that the task of reclaiming the lower chamber in 2004 will prove a near-impossible feat barring a major top-of-the-ticket GOP disaster. In the eyes of Republicans, still glowing following the recent passage of controversial Texas re-redistricting in time for the 2004 contests, the dearth of swing seats is a welcome stabilizing factor and a key to long-term GOP success.

Still, in a year when Republican-friendly Lone Star State maneuvering has intensified national party animosities and many in the news media have (fairly or unfairly) portrayed special election contests as bellwethers in the context of the presidential race, national attention to the battle for the House won’t fall to the wayside. More so than ever before, national money is sure to flood a contracted playing field, with millions of dollars showering the handful of districts retaining close party balances. Once again, small to medium-size states like Colorado and Louisiana, which host a disproportionate share of this year’s competitive House races, will attract particular attention. The result of more money concentrated on fewer districts in a national political climate characterized by relative party parity and a polarized electorate will likely be a set of more contentious, down-and-dirty battles for House seats.

The Crystal Ball, though sad to put on hold its tradition of a Nifty Fifty set of exciting congressional races, is proud to unveil this year’s look at the races most worthy of our consideration: a group of the thirty truly competitive races across the country we’ve dubbed the Dirty Thirty.

Governors

Current Governor Line-Up Overall: 28 R, 22 D

Line-Up of 11 Governorships Up in November 2004:

Democrats have a real shot at winning Republican-controlled Montana and Utah, while Republicans are in close contention for the Democratic-held statehouses in Indiana, Missouri, and maybe Washington. The most endangered incumbent in the nation is Missouri’s Bob Holden (D), who is seriously challenged for re-nomination and, should he survive the primary, has a tough fight in the fall.

Governor’s races can be late-breaking, so this list of “elections to watch†will likely grow as we get to autumn. Overall, though, there won’t be enormous changes in the national balance of party control (28 Republican governors, 22 Democratic governors).