GOP Moderates' Ouster Widens House Divide
Friday, November 10, 2006
Tuesday's electoral upheaval wiped out many of the few remaining Republican moderates in Congress, further cementing the geographic partitioning of the House and potentially widening the ideological divisions that have contributed to partisanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill.
At a time when President Bush and congressional leaders in both parties are preaching the importance of bipartisanship, the structural realities of where the two parties now get most of their House votes may create enormous obstacles to greater harmony and cooperation.
Prospects for legislative action may hinge on whether Bush decides to seek accommodation with Democrats and to build any victories with a truly bipartisan coalition or whether House Republicans, now a smaller and more ideologically homogenous caucus, press vigorously for a reassertion of conservative policies and initiatives.
Tuesday's election results accelerated the geographical realignment of the House that began with the 1994 landslide, which was fueled by the transformation of congressional districts in the South from Democratic to Republican. Republicans picked up 20 seats in the South that year, shifting the geographic center of the GOP to a region where the party was dominated by religious and social conservatives.
What happened this week was, in the eyes of many political analysts, an almost inevitable backlash after a decade of Republican rule in Congress, during which many of the leaders came from Southern states, and GOP policies designed to appeal to the party's most conservative elements.
This year, Democrats made big gains in the Northeast and Midwest, helped by opposition to the war in Iraq. Exit polls showed the president and the Republican brand more unpopular in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country. The party lost roughly a third of its 36 House seats in that region -- and came close to losing several more.
Of the 28 House seats that Democrats picked up in the midterm elections, 10 were in the Northeast and 10 more were in the Midwest. They added five seats in the South and three in the West.
The results produced a historic shift in the balance of regional power in Congress. The majority party in the House is now the minority party among Southern states for the first time since the 83rd Congress in 1953-1954. The same holds for the new Democratic-controlled Senate, except for a brief period in the 1980s.
"With one two-year blip, for the last 50 years, the majority party in the South has been the majority party [in the House and Senate], and that just changed in one election," said Thomas F. Schaller, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South."
The most prominent House Republicans who lost their seats were among the chamber's best-known moderates, including Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa), a veteran legislator who was not seen as endangered by either party; Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), who won her first election to the House during what was otherwise a Republican shellacking in 1982; and Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), who suffered in a historic wipeout of his party at all levels in the Granite State on Tuesday.
The consolidation of the Northeast and the shifts in the Midwest will echo in the 110th Congress -- and potentially longer if Democrats can consolidate their gains in those two regions in future elections.
Republicans will have a difficult time recapturing many of the seats they lost, because the districts are dominated by Democrats and independent swing voters and because incumbents enjoy a tremendous edge in campaigns.