It is perfectly plausible to argue, as many Democrats and some neutral observers are doing, that the midterm election results tell us no more than who will be running the government for the next two years. The obvious hazards to President Bush and the victorious Republicans range from a shaky economy to a possible war with Iraq. But one piece of history suggests that what happened on Nov. 5 could be a prelude to long-term Republican dominance.
That history can be found in Texas, where George W. Bush started from a narrow win in his first race for governor and, step by step, converted it into a broader and more lasting victory for the Republican Party. Now he and his longtime political strategist, Karl Rove, are applying many of the same tools and techniques on a national scale.
A quick review of the relevant Texas history, using numbers compiled by my colleague Brian Faler:
In 1994 Bush defeated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards with 53.5 percent of the vote, but Democrats captured seven of 15 down-ballot races, while losing five offices they had previously held. Republicans also gained one seat in the state Senate and five in the state House, but they remained in the minority.
Two years later Bush was not on the ballot, but he and Rove organized the state for the national ticket and saw Bob Dole carry Texas by 5 percentage points, even as he was losing to Bill Clinton nationally. That year, too, they shut out the Democrats in the eight down-ballot offices up for election, added six more state House seats and took control of the state Senate, exactly reversing the Democrats' previous 17-14 majority.
In 1998, when Bush was running for a second term, he and Rove went for broke. An intensive and expensive telephone canvass identified Bush supporters, of whom there were many by then, and bombarded them with phone calls and mail, all aimed at making them straight-ticket Republican voters. It paid off big. Bush won by more than 2 to 1, and Republicans elected a lieutenant governor, an attorney general and a comptroller -- all previously Democratic -- swept the court positions, maintained control of the state Senate and elected three more state representatives, creeping to within four votes of a House takeover.
In 2000, with Bush on the ballot for president, he beat Al Gore by 21 percentage points, and, for the third election in a row, Democrats lost all the down-ballot races. Republicans remain in control today.
This did not just happen. It was the result of a concerted effort, orchestrated by Bush and Rove, to expand and deepen the Republican base. Part of it involved wooing conservative Democratic officeholders, but mainly it meant converting suburban ticket-splitters and independents into behaving like Republicans.
Now look at what has happened nationally. As everyone knows, Bush prevailed over the incumbent-party candidate, Gore, while losing the popular vote. But this year, even though his own name was not on the ballot, Bush led a massive Republican mobilization effort, investing time and money in helping regain the Senate, pick up seats in the House and hold off an expected Democratic surge in governors.
The presidential contest of 2004 will be, in White House terms, the equivalent of the 1998 second-term Texas gubernatorial race. Two things in particular can be expected. The intense grass-roots voter contact program that Rove geared up in Texas in 1998 was attempted by the 2000 Bush presidential campaign. But, as one of its architects said this week, "so few states, even with Republican governors, had any real party infrastructure that it was of limited impact." In many places, Democrats turned out more of their voters.
This year, with the White House, the Republican National Committee and the two congressional campaign committees working in harness, the Republicans won the turnout race in almost all the battleground states except South Dakota. But White House officials say that this year's campaign is merely the platform on which they will build in 2004.
The second point is the shape of the battlefield. In Texas, Bush went after the Hispanic vote despite forecasts that he would be rebuffed and, according to Matthew Dowd, his pollster, doubled his share of that vote from 1994 to 1998. And, as another veteran of those political wars recalled, Bush challenged Texas Democrats even in such strongholds as El Paso. He campaigned there in 1994 and lost it, went back for Dole in 1996 and lost again, but carried it in 1998. The clear implication: New York and New England, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa -- and even California -- will be on the table in 2004, no matter how strong Democrats look initially in those states.
History does not automatically repeat itself. But it would be foolish for anyone, including the Democrats, to ignore its lessons.