The GOP Strategic Advantage


The measures of Republican success in the 2010 midterm are familiar. The GOP gained: (1) a House majority, with a net pickup of 63 seats, (2) six Senate seats leaving Democrats facing a more challenging Senate playing field in 2012 and 2014, (3) seven governorships, and (4) twenty legislative chambers, giving Republicans control of both legislative chambers in 25 states—an increase of 11. Republicans now control more state legislative seats than any time since 1928.

Republican gains include regional advances in the Midwest and Northeast, and important advances in ethnic diversity. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, Allen West, and Tim Scott may soon become household names. More important, for the GOP, their minority recruits have proven appeal beyond so-called majority-minority House districts.

Perhaps the most remarked-upon newly won GOP state-level advantage involves legislative redistricting. Republicans will completely control line-drawing in over 40% of congressional seats, their greatest such advantage “in the modern era of redistricting” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Tim Storey.

Yet two lesser-told tales of newfound GOP advantage are worth highlighting, one briefly, one at length.

First, recruiting is as important as redistricting in House races because candidate quality is critical. Since the New Deal, Democrats’ dominance in state legislatures provided them with impressive farm teams. In the 2010 midterm elections, however, Republicans gained over 680 new state legislative seats, significantly expanding their farm teams and shrinking Democrats’.

Second, the other lesser-told-tale involves the changed strategic playing field for the two parties; in particular, the advantage Republicans gain by failing to win a Senate majority. Having a House Republican majority, Senate Democratic majority, and a Democratic president in the White House, presents both parties and both branches with a more confusing than usual strategic calculus. Yet Republicans, ironically, may find an advantage precisely because they failed to win a Senate majority. To understand why, it helps to consider James Madison’s separation of powers.

At all times, both parties play electoral politics and pursue public policy on a complex constitutional playing field; one that precludes the clear-cut party roles enjoyed, for example, by British political parties. Historically, in the British parliamentary system the majority party is the government and the minority party is the loyal opposition. American parties do not enjoy the luxury of such clear-cut roles thanks to our complex separation of powers and bicameral system.

At any given time, neither Democrats nor Republicans are the government pure and simple; indeed, at all times both parties are both government and opposition. Consequently, bipartisan compromise and partisan confrontation are both appropriate legislative strategies—which explains why internal party factions constantly contend over legislative and electoral strategy. Managing this internal party factionalism is the Madisonian challenge facing leaders in both parties and both branches at all times. While American parties are constantly perplexed by what role to play, our separation of powers muddles this partisan calculus, especially during divided government. This constitutional conundrum has practical consequences.

American legislative party leaders must constantly choose between government vs. opposition, compromise vs. confrontation, or pursuing policy vs. playing politics. In popular parlance, this often takes the form of debates about bipartisanship and partisanship. Should a party be pragmatic or principled, adopt a moderate centrism or principled liberalism/conservatism, appeal to mainstream independent voters or the party base? Not all of these questions are identical, yet all are defined by the constitutional/institutional “government” or “opposition” conundrum. Ultimately, there is no simple right answer, thus explaining the endless internal party debates over legislative strategy.

Republicans in the 112th Congress, however, may find themselves at an advantage, again, ironically because they failed to win a Senate majority.

Not since just before the Civil War has a Democratic Senate been caught between a Republican House and a Democratic President. Under this relatively new partisan configuration, what are both parties and both branches to do?

House Republicans: Speaker-to-be Boehner seems to recognize the limits on his newfound majority. The strategic conundrum confronting Boehner may reinforce his pragmatic temperament and long experience as a committee chair. Appropriately modest in the election aftermath, Boehner abjured talk of “mandate.” In the 112th Congress, Speaker Boehner will be less inclined to engage in Newt-like “Congressional Government” overreach; he knows he cannot govern from Capitol Hill.

With a Democratic president and Senate, House Republicans—including newly energized Tea Party-charged freshmen—will likely be more willing to bide their time, seeking attainable accomplishments rather than “revolution.” Yet at the same time, the Senate backdrop and Obama veto will liberate House Republicans to appeal to their base, for example, by voting to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, secure in the knowledge that in the end they will not “own” the policy.

House Democrats: As the minority in the majoritarian House, House Democrats may have the least-favored position, albeit the simplest strategic calculus. Lacking responsibility, they are free to be irresponsible. Having lost half their moderate Blue Dog caucus in the 2010 election, House Democrats will be tempted to adopt a full-throated “bomb throwing” politics of opposition—as evidenced by their embrace of Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader.

But the Pelosi-led Democrats are already finding themselves “orphaned” and frustrated by the willingness of President Obama, and even Senate Democrats, to work with Republicans. The debate over the Bush tax cut extension is only the beginning of their odd-man-out dilemma. Tensions between House Democrats and the president will parallel House GOP “permanent minority” frustrations under President Reagan and the first President Bush. Who knows, Pelosi may eventually be tempted to adopt Newt Gingrich’s lose-the-White-House-to-win-the-House 1992 strategy.

Senate Republicans: The Senate is perpetually caught between the House “rock” and the White House “hard place.” Because the Senate operates according to only two rules, “unanimous consent and exhaustion,” both the Senate majority and minority have leverage (a blessing and a curse!), hence both will be part of the government and part of the opposition.

While it may have been impolitic of Mitch McConnell to state the obvious—“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,”—it certainly helps that McConnell, unlike Bob Dole in 1996, is not personally seeking the presidency in 2012. With a Senate minority, Republicans can more comfortably focus on winning in 2012 rather than trying to govern the country from Capitol Hill. McConnell and Boehner will have a more cordial relationship than the 1990s Dole and Gingrich, in part because McConnell in the minority cannot be blamed for failing to bring House GOP initiatives to a vote. The pragmatic McConnell will also have his new junior Kentucky colleague, Tea Party-favorite Rand Paul, to remind him of the need to play the politics of opposition in appealing to their conservative base; McConnell, in turn, can cite Senate Republicans’ minority status to lower conservative base expectations.

Senate Democrats: The pugilistic Harry Reid, now short six Democratic votes, will find he increasingly needs to work with McConnell, though his liberal wing’s demands voiced in the Tuesday party lunches will pull him in the opposite direction. Like Pelosi, Reid will chafe when President Obama needs to work with Congressional Republicans, and Reid will find it difficult to keep his moderates in line when Obama is compromising with Republicans.

The President: Barack Obama will naturally want to protect all his party accomplished in the highly productive 111th Congress. Just as naturally, he will want to advance his and his party’s ambitions and agenda in the lead up to 2012. The first may require confrontation and the use of the veto. The second may require compromise.

Obama, too, will be constrained by divided government in the 112th Congress. With Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader, President Obama cannot easily adopt the 1948 “give ‘em hell” Harry Truman do-nothing 80th Congress confrontational strategy. Nor will the President have the blessing of fellow Democrats to embrace the 1996 compromising Clinton triangulation strategy. Following passage of the 2010 health reform bill, Obama can hardly announce in the State of the Union Address that the “era of big government is over.”

In short, James Madison’s constitutional conundrum has put both parties in difficult straits. Ironically, however, Republicans may reap the rewards of not having gained a Senate majority. Certainly, the wide open 2012 GOP presidential field can breathe a collective sigh of relief that they are not likely to be defined, as Bob Dole was in 1996, by an obstreperous Gingrich-led House Republican revolution.

The Permanent Campaign: Finally, some worry today that politics never ends in America, that campaigning never fully gives way to governing. Since our elections never seem to allow one party to “form a government,” nor relegate the other party simply to “loyal opposition,” it may be fair to ask: is the “permanent campaign” a permanent feature of our separation of powers system? Since neither party is ever wholly the “government” or the “opposition,” maybe the constitutional separation of powers promotes the “permanent campaign”? Perhaps James Madison agrees that “politics is a good thing.”

Bill Connelly is the John K. Boardman Politics Professor at Washington and Lee University, and author of James Madison Rules America: The Constitutional Origins of Congressional Partisanship (2010, Rowman and Littlefield).