Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Sixth Year Itch Hits Shelves

Chapter Excerpts from the Newly Available Book on the 2006 Midterms

UVA Center for Politics April 26th, 2007

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The Sixth Year Itch contains original chapters by political scholar and commentator Larry J. Sabato, as well as contributed chapters by prominent journalists and scholars who are on the political frontlines. Each essay offers trenchant commentary and unique insights into the campaigns, the issues and the strategies of parties and candidates, preparing readers to be informed participants in the next election. This exciting new book is written to help readers understand the issues and actions that mattered most in the 2006 midterm elections and is essential reading for those who really want to understand the issues and trends emerging as the 2008 presidential race approaches.

In addition to Sabato, the following contributors are be featured: Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, Chuck Todd, David Wasserman, Michael Toner, Melissa Laurenza, Claude Marx, Michael Cornfield, Matt Stearns, Gwen Florio, Lawrence Jacobs, Joanne Miller, Peter Woolley, Jonathan Riskind, Bruce Larson, Maureen Moakley, Michael Nelson, Jeff Schapiro, David Postman, David Lightman, Bruce Cain, Susan MacManus, Paul Green, Patrick Healy, Joe Hallet, G. Terry Madonna, Jeff Tuttle, Charles Bullock, Michael Carey, William Lunch and Michael W. Traugott.

Below are excerpts from the first several chapters, presented to our loyal Crystal Ball readers free of charge! The Sixth Year Itch is available on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble, as well as from online retailers everywhere.

Chapter 1 – HISTORICAL IMPERATIVE?

Larry J. Sabato, University of Virginia Center for Politics

Every losing party tends to dismiss an election’s results by playing statistical games. The “if only” game is a common form of this self-delusion. An analyst need only add up the number of votes required in the necessary number of districts and states to flip control of Congress. So just as the Democrats did in the 1990s, the Republicans in 2006 have noted that a “small shift” of under 80,000 votes in the closest contests would have retained the House for the GOP, and a change of under 3,000 votes in Montana or 10,000 votes in Virginia would have preserved Senate control for the Republicans. Yes, and pigs could fly if they could grow large wings.

The obvious lesson of the 2006 election is that there was a Democratic tide flowing in most states and districts, and as is almost always true in such circumstances, most of the close contests tipped to the winning party. The “if only” game misses the point entirely. Democrats came back strongly in ’06 because Republicans made many mistakes and had accumulated heavy baggage. The GOP can and will come back, too, but only after absorbing the real lessons of the election, learning from their mistakes, and shedding some of the baggage. Democrats will hope the GOP does none of these things, and just spends more time and energy dwelling on the ‘if only’ of 2006.

In 1950, 1958, 1966, and 1974, big “sixth year” victories for a party resulted in a presidential win two years later (for the Republicans twice, and the Democrats twice). In 1986 the sixth year itch was fully scratched before 1988, and the Republicans held on to the White House. As we enter the 2008 presidential cycle, the Democrats ought to study the first four cases in their quest to replicate the achievement, while the Republicans should make every effort to reconstitute the 1987-88 conditions. We shall find out which party has done a better job of applying history soon enough.

Chapter 2 – 2006: AN “ABBY NORMAL” ELECTION

Charlie Cook, The Cook Political Report

Focusing exclusively on midterm elections, political analyst Rhodes Cook put it somewhat differently in his October 2006 issue of The Rhodes Cook Letter, describing “three ways to produce a ‘Big Wave’ Election.”

The first is what he calls a “one-party surge” election, using 1994 as an example, when Democrats nationally dropped about 400,000 votes in House races compared to the previous midterm election, while the GOP gained about 9.4 million, resulting in a net gain of 52 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate. The second is a “one-party collapse” election, such as 1974, when Republicans lost about 3 million votes, while Democrats gained about 1.1 million, gaining 48 House and five Senate seats. The final is the “unequal gain” election, such as 1982, when Republicans picked up 3.2 million more votes than the last midterm, but Democrats gained 6.1 million. But in every case, something extraordinary happened beyond local circumstances, and the net changes in the House and Senate (and often in gubernatorial and even down-ballot races) are unusually high and favorable to one party. The shifts are not always uniform. For example, in 1982, Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House, and while there was no net change in the Senate, Republicans came within 39,923 votes of losing four seats (Delaware, Nevada, Rhode Island and Vermont) and their control of the chamber.

Obviously no one knew precisely what was going to happen in this election, but there were warning signals in mid-2005 that the political environment for Republicans was worsening and the potential for a “wave election” was growing. Americans were growing increasingly concerned about the war in Iraq, some questioning why we had invaded the country and on what basis the decision was made and even if lies were told or intelligence misrepresented. Others saw more and more scandals and started to feel that Congress had grown dysfunctional. Some on the right were upset with President Bush and Republicans in the Senate over their positions on immigration, that they were in favor of “amnesty for illegal aliens,” while others became upset over Federal budget deficits and high levels of government spending. Still others became upset over President Bush and many Congressional Republicans’ opposition to greater use of stem cell research and their efforts in the Terri Schiavo case. Whatever the reason, many people where upset over something. Moderate and secular Republicans were feeling estranged from their party and its increasingly conservative positions on social and cultural issues, and independent voters felt shunned by both President Bush and Republicans in Congress.

Chapter 3 – THE FIGHT FOR THE SENATE

Stuart Rothenberg, The Rothenberg Political Report

As the election cycle began, Democrats had no way of knowing that President Bush eventually would turn into a liability for Republicans. True, the war in Iraq was not going well, but exit polls from the 2004 Presidential race demonstrated that Americans saw Iraq as part of the larger war against terror, and those same voters thought President Bush was a much better choice than Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry to lead the fight against terrorism.

Throughout 2005, however, the President’s numbers slid as Americans saw increased violence in Iraq and began to question President Bush’s decision-making and the lack of progress in establishing stability in Iraq. A mid-June CBS/New York Times poll found only one in three Americans saying that the United States was headed in the right direction. The evolving mood, which included greater Democratic anger at the President and a growing doubt about Mr. Bush’s credibility and leadership, allowed Democrats to talk about the war and corruption. And it allowed them to score some unexpected candidate recruiting successes.

National Republican and Democratic Party campaign strategists initially focused their attention on making sure their incumbents would seek reelection. Two Democrats, Paul Sarbanes in very Democratic Maryland, and Mark Dayton, in potentially competitive Minnesota, announced their retirement, as did Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, an Independent who caucused with Senate Democrats. Minnesota seemed to offer Republicans a good opportunity for a pick-up, since they had a GOP House member who had been preparing for a couple of years for a statewide bid, while Democrats seemed destined for a divisive primary.

On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s announcement that he would not seek a third term was widely expected and caused few ripples among party strategists given Tennessee’s recent drift to the GOP. But Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott kept everyone guessing about his plans, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, creating considerable indigestion among top Republicans. While Mississippi normally is a solidly Republican state when it comes to federal races, Democrats believed that they could recruit former state Attorney General Mike Moore for the race, giving them a good opportunity to win what is normally a reliably Republican seat. Eventually, and to the relief of the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Lott opted to seek a fourth term, dissuading a credible Democratic contender from making the race.

Chapter 4 – THE GOVERNORS: Not So Much a Wave as a Gentle Democratic Current

Chuck Todd, National Journal’s “The Hotline”

On paper, Democrats can claim to have had a very successful election year in capturing control of various executive mansions. And yet, given the success the party had on the federal level, there was something about the ’06 gubernatorial returns that had to leave some at the Democratic Governors Association wanting. It just wasn’t as big of a night as it should have been. To put it another way, the Republican Governors Association believes–not incorrectly–that things could have been much worse. Unlike ’94–the last wave election–the party that took a beating in Congress seemed to survive with relatively few wounds on the state level. Just one incumbent Republican governor in the country lost (Bob Ehrlich in Maryland) with one other losing a primary (Frank Murkowski in Alaska). The anti-GOP atmosphere trickled down on some incumbents, but it didn’t wash them out.

Another way to look at the ’06 gubernatorial results is to ask yourself: “what race did the Democrats win that was a complete shock? How about “what race did the Democrats win that was even a mild upset?” The Democrats won every race they were supposed to, either because the state was very blue (New York, Maryland and Massachusetts) or the state was ready for a natural turnover after 8 or more years of GOP rule (Ohio, Colorado and Arkansas). But the races that were long shots (Idaho, Minnesota, Florida, Nevada, California and Alaska) were held by Republicans–an indication that the national Democratic wave did not extend to governorships.

If there was one upset about this midterm’s gubernatorial races, it’s that so many embattled Democratic incumbents survived (indeed, every embattled Democratic incumbent governor survived), including Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, Jim Doyle in Wisconsin, John Baldacci in Maine, Ted Kulongoski in Oregon and Chet Culver in Iowa. So in terms of Democratic survival, one could argue the national wave created just enough of a Democratic current on the state level to make it much harder for a Republican to break through.

Chapter 5 – THE 2006 HOUSE MIDTERM MAELSTROM

David Wasserman, University of Virginia Center for Politics

One of the more remarkable statistics to emerge from the “wave” election of 2006 was the dramatic increase in the number of truly contested districts–those districts in which candidates of both parties had a reasonable chance to win and no candidate received an overwhelming share of the vote. To be sure, Democrats in 2006 may have enjoyed a larger raw margin in total votes cast for the House than any congressional party since Democrats in 1982, but the number of races that were decided by 10 percent of the two-party vote or less was higher than it had been for a decade. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of these close races exploded from 21 to 61, and races decided by 5 percent of the two-party vote or less increased even more dramatically from 10 to 36. So what produced this resurgence of competition?

From the start, House Democrats knew they could not truly capitalize on the withering political climate the House GOP faced and make the opposing party’s seats competitive again unless they succeeded in convincing large numbers of voters–independents and moderate Republicans included–to evaluate their home-state Republican candidates through the powerful lens of national displeasure. In other words, the size of Democrats’ gains were always contingent upon how well they played the game of guilt by (Bush) association as Republicans sought to escape the shadow of their unpopular chief executive in order to cut their losses.

The problem for Democrats, however, had always been that in addition to a low number of open seat opportunities, a high number of the GOP’s targeted moderate incumbents were personally very well liked in their states and districts. For example, moderate Connecticut GOP Reps. Rob Simmons, Chris Shays, and Nancy Johnson had all earned strong reputations for paying attention to local concerns, and GOP veterans such as Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon and Florida Rep. Clay Shaw had even been able to count on a slew of local Democratic endorsements in past years. For all of the broad, national reasons Republicans were politically radioactive as early as 2005, Democrats knew that none of them would matter if they didn’t come into focus in districts like these.