WASHINGTON — There are three potential outcomes when this year's midterm elections come to a close:
- Scenario I: Democrats ride a wave of discontent over President Bush and Iraq, and they pick up at least 30 House seats and at least six Senate seats.
- Scenario II: Democratic momentum stalls a bit, and the party narrowly picks up the House -- but only by a three- to five-seat margin. And the party's gains in the Senate are no more than a net of three seats, keeping the GOP in control.
- Scenario III: The Republicans narrowly hold on to their majorities in both chambers.
The level of fallout or hubris for each party depends on which scenario comes true.
Scenario I: A Democratic wave
This is the scenario that Democrats secretly believe and Republicans secretly fear to be most likely. Sure, the White House is optimistic these days and swears that the proverbial glass still has some condensation in it, but the fact remains there aren't any polls that indicate Republicans are headed in the right direction this campaign season.
So what happens if disaster strikes the GOP? Like any political party that loses an election, there will be major recriminations. But before they play out, there would be a heated debate about whether a depressed base or a defection of moderates caused the losses. Whoever wins that argument (probably those arguing depressed base) would determine who's in charge of the party.
In the House, that means gutting the leadership. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would likely resign rather than run for minority leader. In fact, he probably would do what former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., did in '98 and resign his House seat after the first of the year, making Illinois' 14th District home to the first special election of 2007.
The question mark is current Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Is he new enough in the leadership to avoid being booted (as he was in '98) from the leadership team? He would be a comfortable face for the House GOP, but is he the right face to lead the Republicans out of the minority? Will the House conservatives rally around someone like Mike Pence of Indiana or John Shadegg of Arizona instead, or will a compromise candidate like Eric Cantor of Virginia sneak through? Or maybe Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is the answer? I shouldn't count out Missouri's Roy Blunt either, but something tells me he won't be interested in staying in the minority. Since the Democrats are likely to have a woman leading their House caucus, their Republican colleagues might feel pressured to have a woman in leadership up higher than they have now. So if Blackburn doesn't run for the top post, look for her to be a strong contender for the second slot.
The problem for House Republicans is that until the Mark Foley scandal broke, the de facto heir apparent to Hastert was National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York. Even if Reynolds survives his re-election race (and there are signs he will), he might have suffered too much political damage to mount a leadership bid. As for his NRCC post, the race is already down to Phil English of Pennsylvania, Tom Cole of Oklahoma (a former pollster) and Pete Sessions of Texas. English and Sessions start with the bigger regional advantages, but Cole's got the political consultant card to play.
If Scenario I occurs, the Senate's leadership team will be decimated by the voters of Pennsylvania, as the Keystone State's junior senator, Rick Santorum (R), is likely to lose. That comes in addition to the retirement of Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Plus, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl's fate is uncertain. A player in the Senate's Republican leadership, he could be swept out of office by a big wave -- leaving yet another hole in the leadership team.
What we do know is that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will lead the GOP caucus, whether it's as majority leader or minority leader. Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee both seem poised to run for a top post as well. If Kyl wins, I'd expect him to move up the ladder from his current chairmanship of the Policy Committee. Another leadership wild card might be Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, but he has to win re-election first and probably wouldn't under this first scenario. Compared with the holes the House Republicans will be attempting to fill, the leadership battles among Senate Republicans might be quite tame. McConnell runs a tight ship; he won't allow intraparty feuds to be leaked to the media the way House Republicans will.
A farewell to Mehlman
As for the other arms of the GOP, the most interesting vacancy the party may have to fill is at the Republican National Committee. No matter the results this cycle, Chairman Ken Mehlman has made little secret of his desire to move on. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if all of the '08 prospective presidential candidates (and even the White House) pass on talking him into staying. He's as neutral a chair as the party could find, and mechanically, it's hard to pin any blame for '06 on Mehlman. Sure, he's had his disagreements with the NRCC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the White House, but compared with relations among the three major Democratic committees, it's nothing.
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If Mehlman leaves, the RNC chairmanship will take on the feel of a caretaker, and that's the last thing the party needs as it prepares for '08.
As for the Democrats in this scenario, the only thing they have to fear is hubris. Do the Democrats make the mistake of believing voters hired the Democrats to run the country, or do they go into 2007 realizing the country simply fired the Republicans?
Democrats in the House have an interesting decision to make regarding who will be No. 2 to the likely House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California. Will it be Steny Hoyer of Maryland (her current No. 2 as minority whip) or John Murtha of Pennsylvania? While Murtha's military credentials are impressive, is he really the right face for the party? Frankly, neither Hoyer nor Murtha strike me as ideal majority leaders. Both are dealmakers, but they may be too close to the old way of doing things in Washington. And they both may have just too many ties to K Street -- and that could make the Democrats' new House majority look like ethical hypocrites. Whether legitimate or trumped up, I could see ethics complaints filed against either Hoyer or Murtha in a hurry by a vindictive Republican minority.
The wild card is Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. He's a fresher face, and the new class of House freshmen will have a greater sense of loyalty to him than to Pelosi. If the potential new speaker is as shrewd as some Democrats swear to me she is, then she's likely to quietly support a majority leader bid by Emanuel, or at the worst, the whip job. Emanuel's likely to be pressured to stay one more cycle at the DCCC, but with the Democrats stuck playing defense in '08, why would he want to do it?
The Senate Democratic leadership team is unlikely to undergo any major change in a possible wave. Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will slide over to the majority leader post, and Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois will continue to be the No. 2. The only major unknown on the Senate side is who becomes chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The 2008 cycle is actually a pretty good one for the Democrats, because more Republican seats will be up in '08 than Democratic ones. Chairman Charles Schumer of New York is not up in '08 -- so he would be eligible to stay another cycle -- but would he? If it's a way to stay in leadership, maybe he would. But if he leads Democrats to capture the majority in '06, why would he risk his political legacy in '08?
As for the Democratic National Committee, a gain of 30 or more House seats would mean Democrats would score victories in places that Chairman Howard Dean has invested in for his 50-state strategy. If Democrats win major races in Alaska, Idaho and Nebraska, look for some major gloating by the former presidential hopeful.
Scenario II: Democrats win small majority in House, not Senate
A better name for this result might be the "kissing your sister" scenario. There's something for both parties to gloat about, but neither will have had enough success in '06 to fully declare the night a "Democratic victory" or a "Republican victory."
I don't believe the recrimination issue facing the GOP in Scenario I would change much if a narrow Democratic majority is installed. Hastert would still probably go, and the GOP would still be likely to face some intraparty ideological squabbles, which would result in a new leadership team.
But the fascinating storyline in this scenario will be Pelosi's fate. Will, say, 220 House Democrats stay united and elect Pelosi speaker, or will enough conservative House Democrats break and elect a compromise Democrat as speaker? Even the threat of Democrats peeling off and working in collaboration with the Republicans to do so might be enough to encourage a serious challenge to Pelosi inside the Democratic caucus. For some reason Pelosi has a terrible relationship with the liberal blogs. There's a pretty decent chance liberal bloggers could start a grassroots effort to get behind Emanuel for speaker.
Another leader who would face problems under this outcome is Dean, because the result would largely be chalked up to the Republican Party's mechanical advantage on turnout. And there's a well-documented paper trail of folks like Emanuel and Schumer complaining about the lack of GOTV help they've received from the DNC. If Democrats come up thousands of votes short in a bunch of targeted races, particularly on the Senate side, watch for a lot of Beltway Democrats to point the finger at Dean.
Scenario III: Republicans hold their majorities
This result is the least likely, because it appears that Republicans have too many vulnerable House seats to hold onto the lower chamber. That said, anything is possible, and conventional wisdom so regularly gets turned upside down that I would be an idiot not to entertain this scenario.
In short, if Democrats fail to win at least one of the chambers, the recriminations and finger-pointing will be epic. The failure to win in this environment will probably cost Dean and Pelosi their jobs and will put all of the Democratic leadership in Washington on notice. I wouldn't put it past some Democrats to begin pondering splintering off and forming third parties. That may sound irrational, but it's one thing not to win when the president's job approval rating is in the high 40s to low 50s -- it's another not to win when the opposition party's leader is as unpopular as Bush is. It would take a very inept political party to blow this opportunity facing them now.
Don't underestimate the demoralizing effect that losing in entirety could have on the Democratic Party. It could permeate for a very long time, and beyond 2008.
As for Republicans, they would take a result like this and treat it as a mandate, even though their majorities (under this outcome) would be less than they are today. But the expectations have shifted to a point that holding both houses of Congress is a gigantic victory for the GOP and Bush.
A piece of the fallout puzzle I left off of each scenario is the 2008 presidential race, but I have to save something for the December doldrums!
Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.