Sabato's Crystal Ball

Election Exceptions

Which 2006 contests will frustrate the national trend?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics June 15th, 2006

The bubble of conventional wisdom was burst last week, with the election of Republican Brian Bilbray to succeed disgraced Representative Duke Cunningham in California’s 50th House district. While most reporters and analysts, including this pundit, publicly bet a nickel on Bilbray because of the GOP nature of the district, we may have secretly rooted for Democratic challenger Francine Busby. No, Republican friends, this isn’t proof of partisanship. Rather, it’s that a Busby upset would have opened the floodgates for wild speculation about November 2006. Chaos, not stability, is what prognosticators live for!

We had our historical precedents ready. When the GOP’s Ron Lewis won a special House election for a Democratic seat in Kentucky back in May 1994, it was a massive upset that signaled the Republican landslide to come that November. Some of us old-timers even recalled Democrat Richard Vander Veen, who captured Gerald Ford’s solidly Republican district in Grand Rapids, Michigan in early 1974, after Ford had been elevated to the Vice Presidency. This was an electrifying victory that foreshadowed the Democratic Watergate landslide of November 1974. (Lewis is still serving, by the way, while Vander Veen was a flash in the pan; He won a full term in ‘74 but lost reelection in 1976.)

What a difference four percentage points makes! That was Bilbray’s margin over Busby, a gaffe-prone, lackluster candidate who was out of her league. With six years (1995-2001) under his belt from another California House district, former congressman Bilbray understood what it took to win a tough campaign, and riding the immigration issue, he did so. The DCCC forced the NRCC to pull out all the stops and spend a large fortune for Bilbray, but given the dam that might have burst had Busby won, it was worth every GOP penny for them.

So the election of Bilbray, the killing of bloodthirsty terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the non-indictment of Bush uber-adviser Karl Rove, and a splashy secret trip to Baghdad gave President Bush his best week since his second Inauguration. Suddenly, a solid Democratic showing in November appeared less of a sure bet. We’ll see about that, since the sixth year election trends still favor Democrats in the House, Senate, and Governorships overall. Democrats remain likely to pick up seats in all three categories, but fewer analysts today than ten days ago will say definitively that Democrats will take control of either house of Congress.

The contra-CW triumph of Bilbray got the Crystal Ball spinning. Even if there’s a strong trend in one party’s direction in an election, there are always candidates from the losing national party that manage to win some competitive states and districts. Who might these candidates be in 2006?

On our way to answering that question, let’s take a brief detour back twenty years ago, to the 1986 midterm elections. That particular midterm had one of the best examples of the counter-trend we are discussing here.

If you ask most students of elections to summarize the 1986 contests, the first thing–maybe the only thing–they will recall was the dramatic and somewhat unexpected Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate. Going into the election, the GOP had held the Senate since the Reagan landslide of 1980, and they controlled 53 of the 100 seats in 1986. Democrats gained eight seats, net, in November, defeating seven incumbent Republicans (many of them weak freshmen elected on Reagan’s coattails six years earlier). As a consequence, an unusually low 75 percent of Senate incumbents seeking reelection were returned to office. The new Democratic majority guaranteed that President Reagan’s final two years in the White House would be more difficult than his first six.

Yet arguably, there was an equally significant result in November 1986 that has been long forgotten. Just as Democrats gained eight Senate seats in the ‘86 midterms, Republicans picked up eight more Governorships–not least Florida and Texas–while holding California. These additions boosted the GOP from a mere 16 governorships to 24, improving their prospects for the critical 1991 redistricting season to come.

Looking back, most of the Republican gains occurred for the two most durable reasons in politics. The GOP simply had better candidates running in some states, such as Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, who defeated Democratic Governor Tony Earl. In other states, such as Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, and Texas, it was more a matter of Red-state territory reasserting its Red nature after a period of Democratic control. Of course, both factors came into play in a handful of states, including Oklahoma, where the GOP’s Henry Bellmon won, or South Carolina, where Republican Carroll Campbell began his years of dominance. (See the table at the end of this Crystal Ball to refresh your memory about the statehouse winners and losers of 1986.)

These 1986 lessons can be applied to 2006. Let’s look at the statehouse battles unfolding now. Most incumbents are in good to excellent shape, even where their party ID does not fit the state. This includes Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Cailfornia), Jodi Rell (R-Connecticut), Linda Lingle (R-Hawaii), Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kansas), Brad Henry (D-Oklahoma), Jim Douglas (R-Vermont), and Dave Freudenthal (D-Wyoming). Some might contend that Schwarzenegger is still in trouble, but we have a hard time believing that Democratic nominee Phil Angelides will really be much of a threat in the end. Oddly, in the entire nation, only one GOP incumbent is in a toss-up race, Governor Bob Ehrlich of heavily Blue Maryland. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R), while favored, will also have a race on his hands. Many of the eight states with retiring Republican incumbents may fall to the Democrats, though, including New York and Ohio.

To many people’s surprise, the vast majority of the endangered Governors in 2006 are Democrats:

Notice that four of these states are in the Midwest, where the regional economy has not kept pace with the improving, basically healthy national economy.

In the Senate races, Democrats are seriously threatening GOP incumbents in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Missouri, and Rhode Island, with long-shot chances in a few other states such as Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia. But Republicans have opportunities to win a few seats against a possible Democratic tide:

So there you have it: seven races for Governor and five contests for Senator where Republicans could sail against the wind to victory in November 2006. Almost certainly, at least a few of these GOP candidates will manage to win, and perhaps a sizeable number will. The odds are against another 1986, but in politics, anything is possible.

Table 1. 1986 Gubernatorial Election Results

State Candidate Party Percentage Party Control Change?
Alabama Guy Hunt Republican 56 Yes
William J. Baxley Democratic 43
Charles A. Graddick Independent 1
Alaska Steve Cowper Democratic 52 No
Arliss Sturgulewski Republican 48
Arizona Evan Mecham Republican 40 Yes
Carlyn Warner Democratic 34
Bill Schulz Independent 26
Arkansas Bill Clinton (I) Democratic 64 No
Frank D. White Republican 36
California George Deukmejian (I) Republican 62 No
Tom Bradley Democratic 38
Colorado Roy Romer Democratic 59 No
Ted L. Strickland Republican 41
Connecticut William A. O’Neill (I) Democratic 59 No
Julia D. Belaga Republican 41
Florida Bob Martinez Republican 54 Yes
Steve Pajcic Democratic 46
Georgia Joe Frank Harris (I) Democratic 70 No
Guy E. Davis, Jr. Republican 30
Hawaii John D. Waihee, III Democratic 52 No
D.G. Anderson Republican 48
Idaho Cecil D. Andrus Democratic 50 No
David H. Leroy Republican 49
Illinois James R. Thompson, Jr. (I) Republican 57 No
Adlai E. Stevenson Solidarity 43
Iowa Terry Branstad (I) Republican 52 No
Lowell L. Junkins Democratic 48
Kansas Mike Hayden Republican 52 Yes
Thomas R. Docking Democratic 48
Maine John R. McKernan, Jr. Republican 40 Yes
James E. Tierney Democratic 30
Sherry F. Huber Independent 15
John Menario Independent 15
Maryland William D. Schaefer Democratic 82 No
Thomas J. Mooney Republican 18
Massachusetts Michael S. Dukakis (I) Democratic 69 No
George S. Kariotis Republican 31
Michigan James J. Blanchard (I) Democratic 69 No
William Lucas Republican 31
Minnesota Rudy G. Perpich (I) Democratic 57 No
Cal R. Ludeman Republican 43
Nebraska Kay A. Orr Republican 53 Yes
Helen Boosalis Democratic 47
Nevada Richard H. Bryan (I) Democratic 73 No
Patricia D. Cafferata Republican 25
New Hampshire John H. Sununu (I) Republican 54 No
Paul McEachern Democratic 46
New Mexico Garrey E. Carruthers Republican 53 Yes
Ray Powell Democratic 47
New York Mario Cuomo (I) Democratic 65 No
Andrew P. O’Rourke Republican 32
Ohio Richard F. Celeste (I) Democratic 61 No
James A. Rhodes Republican 39
Oklahoma Henry L. Bellmon Republican 51 Yes
David Walters Democratic 49
Oregon Neil E. Goldschmidt Democratic 53 Yes
Norma Jean Paulus Republican 47
Pennsylvania Robert P. Casey Democratic 51 Yes
William W. Scranton, III Republican 49
Rhode Island Ed DiPrete (I) Republican 67 No
Bruce G. Sundlun Democratic 33
South Carolina Carroll A. Campbell, Jr. Republican 52 Yes
Michael R. Daniel Democratic 48
South Dakota George S. Mickelson Republican 52 No
R. Lars Herseth Democratic 48
Tennessee Ned R. McWherter Democratic 54 Yes
Winfield Dunn Republican 46
Texas William P. Clements, Jr. Republican 53 Yes
Mark White (I) Democratic 47
Vermont Madeline M. Kunin (I) Democratic 47 No
Peter Smith Republican 38
Bernard Sanders Independent 15
Wisconsin Tommy G. Thompson Republican 53 Yes
Anthony S. Earl (I) Democratic 47
Wyoming Michael J. Sullivan Democratic 54 No
Peter K. Simpson Republican 46