Republicans Aren't About to Lose the House, Just Everything Else

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 10 2013 5:20 PM

Republicans Aren't About to Lose the House, Just Everything Else

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This guy is the only president since the creation of the Republican Party who's won seats in his second midterm.

Photo by Mehdi Taamallah/AFP/Getty Images

It's been four days since a clutch of Public Policy Polling surveys in swing districts produced headlines like "GOP poised to lose House." It's been three days since Stu Rothenberg debunked that, pointing out that "at least five of the 17 Republicans who are 'losing' either have no serious opposition or have less-than-top-tier opponents." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has argued that the shutdown will boost its recruiting program, hasn't produced results yet.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Let's not lose focus: The GOP's problem is not that it may lose the House, but that it may be unable to win outside of districts and states already slanted to elect its candidates. Nate Cohn, who's largely right about the low risk of a Speaker Pelosi comeback, says pretty blithely that "the GOP retained control of the House in the 1998 midterm elections" and the "GOP's ratings quickly recovered, although that may have been assisted by a strong presidential candidate who attempted to change the party's brand."

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That's significantly understating what happened in 1998 and after. The second Clinton midterm was the first midterm since 1934 when an incumbent president's party gained ground.* Newt Gingrich, who'd survived a GOP coup attempt, was predicting a gain of 30–40 seats, thanks to the impeachment and historical trends. The Democrats' gain of five House seats, while it didn't flip the House, completely undid Gingrich. He resigned, and the GOP spent the next year trying to paper over the continuing impeachment/trial of Clinton and rebrand the party. "By 2000," wrote Karl Rove in his memoirs, "Republicans were slowly being edged off the stage as the party lost support in suburban areas and ran out of big ideas its congressional majorities could push into law."

Rove's response to that was, of course, the 2000 George W. Bush presidential campaign. When Bush announced in Iowa, he defined "compassionate conservatism" against what were still, at the time, negative views of the GOP.

I know this approach has been criticized. But why? Is compassion beneath us? Is mercy below us? Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart? I know Republicans – across the country -- are generous of heart. I am confident the American people view compassion as a noble calling. The calling of a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued.

I am proud to be a compassionate conservative. I welcome the label. And on this ground I’ll take my stand.

Bush had to rebrand the Republican Party and move its image and policy goals to the left. In power, Rove consolidated: Bush's achievements included more federal standards for education and Medicare Part D. His great unfinished achievement? Amnesty. Oh, and Bush's electorate in 2000 was 81 percent white; the electorate in 2012 was 72 percent white.

Basically, the risk of the GOP losing the House because of the shutdown is quite low. The risk of it losing the presidency again if it doesn't have a nominee who rejects much of what the party in the House is doing? Much higher.

*In the modern partisan era, only seven presidents have won two full terms. The House seat losses or gains for their second midterms were: -30 (2006, Bush), +5 (1998, Clinton), -5 (1986, Reagan), -48 (1958, Eisenhower), -72 (FDR, 1938), -22 (Wilson, 1918), and -93 (Grant, 1874). Clinton's literally the only president since the creation of the Republican Party who's won seats in the second midterm.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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