By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"My sense is the 2nd District [Bass's seat] is going to be very tough for Republicans to win back," said Tom Rath, Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire.
Other Northern or Midwestern seats that switched this week may prove more difficult for Democrats to hold. Among them are the 2nd District in Kansas, where Rep. Jim Ryun (R) was defeated, even though Bush carried the district with 59 percent of the vote in 2004, and Ohio's 18th District, which Bush won with 57 percent but which fell to the Democrats on Tuesday largely because of the corruption conviction of former representative Robert W. Ney (R).
The elimination of GOP moderates could push House Republicans farther to the right. By Schaller's analysis, 10 of the 28 most liberal members of the Republican conference were defeated. With fewer moderates, Republicans are less likely to feel pressure to bow to the wishes of moderates, especially on fiscal issues.
Most of the leading candidates for GOP party leadership are promising a return to conservative principles, especially on fiscal issues. Few are calling for more compromise. "We did not just lose our majority -- we lost our way," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a candidate for minority leader, wrote to his colleagues.
Whether a likely shift to the right within the House GOP caucus will be offset by a move toward the center forced by the new crop of freshman Democrats is a matter of debate inside the Democratic Party. Centrists see the new crop of Democrats enhancing their ranks, but progressives say they will have even more new allies.
Newcomers such as Democrat Brad Ellsworth of Indiana are social conservatives, opposed to abortion and gun control. They have told leaders that they will lose their seats in 2008 if the party moves too far to the left. But most of the Democrats who won favor abortion rights, and an analysis by the liberal Campaign for America's Future concludes that skeptics of free trade agreements will replace advocates of such pacts in 15 districts.
The new House map also presents potential problems for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), expected to become the speaker in the 110th Congress. Democrats won power by sweeping the Northeast, a region with a large number of liberal voters but also by picking off less liberal districts in the Midwest and other regions.
"We have to constantly remind everybody that members-elect have about 24 hours to celebrate, and then they are targets," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.). "They have to defend their seats, and they cannot do that unless they have performed for their constituents," who are not as liberal as many of the party's activists.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said: "If you look at the folks who were elected around the country, we were contesting swing districts. By definition, candidates in swing districts lean to the middle. They ran in districts that clearly had Republicans" in large numbers.
Both the president and the new Democratic leadership will find the House a test of their leadership skills.