WASHINGTON – Four years ago, Bill Clinton and the Democrats defied history and gained House seats in midterm elections. Now it's time for George W. Bush and the Republicans to try.
Whatever their success, the midterm curse that afflicted both political parties over the past century is waning, weakened this year by congressional redistricting that accounts for population shifts, as well as the terrorist attacks and even Bush's no-coattails victory of 2000.
"We haven't beaten the curse yet," said Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican in charge of the House GOP campaign committee. "I remember working in the Nixon White House in the 1970s thinking we might pick up a handful of seats." It didn't happen.
But whether the GOP wins or lose seats Tuesday — or holds or surrenders control of the House — not even the most partisan Democrat is forecasting a midterm swing that approaches the 30-seat average of the past century.
Over that period, the only times the party in the White House gained House seats were 1902; Franklin Roosevelt's first midterm in 1934; and 1998, when voters rejected Republican efforts to turn the elections into a referendum on impeachment proceedings against Clinton.
The party in power has suffered in the Senate, as well, but not as severely or as often. There, the average loss is four seats, and the potential for a large shift is diminished because only one-third of the seats are on the ballot at a time. The party in power has gained Senate seats seven times at midterm since 1902.
"From a historical perspective, the parties are much more at parity than they have been for some time. You have roughly a 50-50 country in which large swings are less likely," said Howard Wolfson, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Additionally, according to Wolfson, Davis and several strategists in both parties, incumbents in both parties used congressional redistricting to create hundreds of safe seats, reducing the likelihood of a large swing for the next decade.
"Redistricting has become such a computer-driven process and an incumbent-driven process," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "And it has produced a situation where now a competitive district is very much more than exception than the rule."
Most of the party-financed campaign advertising has been conducted in 40 or so districts around the country, a signal that neither side ever thought a large swing of seats was possible.
In California, where Democrats gained five seats in the 2000 elections, redistricting produced one competitive race at most out of 53 seats. New York, a strongly Democratic state with 29 seats, has only one where a switch in party seems possible.
Redistricting resulted in the shift of seats to states more receptive to the GOP, providing a further cushion against a large midterm loss, according to Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Bush has maintained high approval ratings, and the terrorist attacks and debate over possible war with Iraq have complicated Democratic efforts to turn the election into a referendum on economic issues.
"For several months after Sept. 11 we were essentially operating on a unity government, which doesn't favor the party out of power," said Wolfson.
"When you look back at a lot of those midterms, some were directly related to events that were going on nationally," Fabrizio said.
Thus, Republicans lost 48 seats in the Watergate year of 1974, when Richard M. Nixon sat in the White House. In the recession-plagued midterm of 1982, Ronald Reagan and Republicans lost 26 House seats. At Clinton's first midterm, 1994, Republicans gained 52 seats and control of the House in an election widely viewed as a referendum on tax increases and a plan for national health insurance.
In the House, Republicans have enjoyed a financial advantage in the campaign drawing to a close. In the campaign's final days, for example, they had the funds to launch advertising campaigns against Democrats in Utah, Kansas, California and Tennessee, possibly enabling them to claim a seat or two that once seemed out of their reach.
Ironically, Bush's victory was so slender in 2000 that his party lost seats in the House — an unusual event in itself — and there is no large class of first-term Republicans to create ready targets for the Democrats.
Democrats mounted strenuous challenges to only three new Republican lawmakers: Reps. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia; Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Felix Grucci in New York.