The Impermanent Majority

After George W. Bush was elected in 2000, his advisers and allies set about solidifying their control of Congress. In short order, the phrase "permanent Republican majority" started to get bandied about (here is a reference to it in a Time magazine article from April 2001). That idea partly concerned efforts by Bush and Karl Rove to expand the Republican base to include groups like Latinos, but mostly referred to the House of Representatives. With the right mix of money, targeted legislation, and clever redistricting (the cocktail that landed Tom DeLay in jail), Republicans could make their grip on the House all but impossible to break.

For a while, it seemed to be working. Republicans gained seats in 2002, then Bush won re-election in 2004, and a spate of books arrived explaining how Republicans were redrawing the American political map for a generation to come (see here, here, and here).

But it turned out to be anything but permanent. Democrats won back both houses of Congress in 2006, and won the White House in 2008. It seemed then that the failures of the Bush presidency had made Republican victories all but impossible. Of course, the pendulum swung again in 2010, and now no one is foolish enough to suggest that anything is permanent. The question now is whether Democrats can swing it back in their direction in 2012.

As the last year has shown, a House in Republican hands can do an awful lot of harm if it wants to. With the right motivation and resolve, it can shut down the government, take the economy hostage, and engage in all manner of tomfoolery—one example: as EPA administrator Lisa Jackson recently observed, "Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation's environmental laws," At the moment, the motivation for this kind of malevolence comes from the freshman class of 2010, as embarrassing a collection of radicals, neophytes, and cranks as has ever trooped to Washington.

That freshman class may have been the prime moving force in American politics over the last year, but as Politico reported last week, there is a major downside to electing 87 anti-establishment, ideological true believers. "House GOP freshmen—many of them political novices who rode to victory on an anti-Washington wave—are discovering they aren't very good at one of the capital's most pressing chores: raising money." Not only are they inexperienced at squeezing cash from donors, unlike veteran members with plum committee assignments, they have less ability to do favors for industries and lobbyists who will then fill the members' coffers in gratitude.

And that's just one of the problems they face. Fundraising is just one part of the campaign picture, and a closer look at the Republican freshmen—who they are and what districts they represent—reveals some real vulnerabilities that could make it possible for Democrats to take back the House next year.

Let's look at one example. Renee Ellmers, who represents North Carolina's 2nd district, is one of the freshman class' Tea Party Republicans. A former nurse, Ellmers had never run for office before 2010. The second is a swing district where Barack Obama beat John McCain 52-47, and George W. Bush beat John Kerry 54-46. But in a year when any Republican with a pulse could become a member of Congress, Ellmers' nuttiness was no bar to becoming a lawmaker. She made news during the campaign for what seemed to be blatant bigotry against Muslims, airing an incendiary TV ad about the proposal to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site in New York, then defending it by saying that she was running to represent "good hardworking, Christian people." In the end, Ellmers prevailed by 1,498 votes in a recount over seven-term incumbent Bob Etheridge.

It's safe to say that Renee Ellmers will never be a congressional giant, but the immediate question is whether she can even get re-elected. In the third quarter of this year, she raised only $97,000—not the kind of money you need to win what will probably be a close election. Since this is the first election after a census, state legislatures are redrawing district lines. Will North Carolina's draw the lines of Ellmers' district to include more Republicans? Fortunately for her, the legislature was taken over by Republicans last year. But they may decide that shoring up more experienced members with a better chance of staying in Congress for years to come is a more important priority than protecting her.

That scenario is playing out in many states. North Carolina could produce a number of new Republican seats through redistricting, particularly since it has three Democratic congressmen representing Republican-leaning districts. But Democrats stand to gain in other states, too, like Illinois. Before the 2010 election, Illinois was represented by 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans. But in the 2010 wave, four Republican challengers ousted Democratic incumbents, making the current split 11-8 in favor of Republicans. Three out of those four—Adam Kinzinger, Bobby Schilling, and notorious deadbeat dad Joe Walsh—represent Democratic-leaning districts. Another new freshman Republican, Robert Dold, won an open-seat contest to replace now-Senator Mark Kirk in district Obama won by 23 points. At a time when the image of Republicans in Congress could barely be any lower, the uphill battle these representatives face will be made even more difficult by the fact that district lines in Illinois are being redrawn by a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor. That means some of those freshmen are almost sure to lose their jobs.

Analysts who examine House races one-by-one now say say there are fewer than 50 races around the country that are truly competitive. Democrats need a net gain of 26 seats to win back control of the House, and it won't be easy. But their job will be made easier by the fact that so many of the incumbents they need to unseat are, shall we say, not exactly the all-star team. Next year's election will almost certainly not be a wave for either party. In order to stay in Congress, most Republican freshman will need to wage a skilled campaign, with plenty of money, a finely honed message, and a strong organization. Candidates like Renee Elmers may not be able to put all that together.

The result will probably be that even if Republicans keep hold of the House, some of the more extreme Tea Party nutballs will depart it. At the very least, that could make Congress a bit less extreme, a bit more civil, and a bit less inane. Members of either party should remember: Nothing is permanent.

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