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updated 7/11/2007 3:20:36 PM ET 2007-07-11T19:20:36
ANALYSIS

There aren't many better ways to contemplate the state of American politics than by standing in waders in a couple of feet of chilly water, fly-fishing on a beautiful Canadian stream.

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While total concentration on the delivery and placement of the fly might lead to more productive fishing, the backcountry is still an outstanding place to think. And with so many competing crosscurrents in American politics, there is plenty to think about.

One fishing buddy this past weekend had served, among many other senior Washington jobs, as chief of staff to a Republican senator in the 1970s.

He was relating his experiences and impressions of the forces that buffeted his party in the aftermath of the disastrous 1974 Watergate midterm elections, both in 1976 and during the period leading up to the 1980 elections in which the GOP recaptured the White House, won a majority of Senate seats and scored substantial House gains, just six years after having been almost wiped out.

You might recall that in 1974, the Watergate scandal and the backlash against President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon led to a GOP loss of 49 House and three Senate seats, leaving Republicans to hope they had hit bottom in the midterm election.

While many think back on the 1976 election and remember Ford's razor-thin loss to Jimmy Carter, it was a pretty weird year on the congressional election front. Democrats had a net gain of just a single seat in the House, but given the 49-seat increase two years earlier, the low-hanging fruit had already been picked and Democrats were pretty much at the peak of what they had any reasonable chance of getting.

Only two of their freshmen lost re-election that year.

In the Senate, where turnover had been proportionately lower in 1974, Democrats unseated four GOP incumbents and captured three open seats previously held by Republicans, but lost five of their own incumbents and two open seats. While there was no net change, each party captured seven seats from the other side and a whopping nine incumbents lost re-election.

That year, incumbent Republicans who lost were Sens. Glenn Beall of Maryland, James Buckley of New York, Bob Taft Jr. of Ohio and Bill Brock of Tennessee.

Democratic incumbents forced out were Sens. Vance Hartke of Indiana, Gale McGee of Wyoming, Joe Montoya of New Mexico, Frank Moss of Utah and John Tunney of California.

In addition, Republicans lost open seats in Arizona, Hawaii and Nebraska and Democrats lost in Missouri, Rhode Island and Wyoming.

Clearly, voters were angry in 1974, and they expressed that anger at the ballot box. But they weren't much happier in 1976, and vented their spleens then as well, albeit in a less partisan and more highly selective manner.

While on the Republican side, Senate losses seemed to be a continuation of what had occurred two years earlier, the Democratic losses seemed to disproportionately befall "old-school" types who were having a tough time adjusting to a new era of politics.

The House, which had taken the full brunt of the 1974 election, was affected significantly less.

Even the most cursory glance at the 2008 Senate picture shows the likelihood of 14 states opting to swing from one party to the other to be quite slim. It is hard to find four Democratic incumbents, let alone three Democratic open seats, that the party might lose. But the funny thing about the Senate is that with less homogeneous electorates and six-year respites between elections, upsets are proportionately more frequent.

When campaigns are waged infrequently, it seems, nimbleness is sometimes lost.

Of the GOP in 1976, my Republican friend recalls, "we knew what we didn't want to be, but we didn't know what we wanted to be." Obviously, getting as far as possible from Nixon and Watergate was important, but it wasn't clear which direction the party needed to head and what its agenda should have been. The party was adrift.

It was only after their second set of election losses that Republicans decided to embrace what at the time seemed to be a revolutionary concept of supply-side economics and a proposal by Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and Sen. William Roth, R-Del., that set the stage for a party comeback in 1980. They had found something to be for.

While the political climate continues to look bad for Republicans in general, my view has been much more agnostic toward the 2008 House and Senate elections.

Surely a great deal of polling offers a plethora of bad news for Republicans, offset only by congressional approval numbers that are lousy and suggest that congressional Democrats are seen as barely preferable to their GOP rivals. So one might argue for the "lots of incumbent losses" scenario that could endanger officeholders in both parties.

At the end of the day, a betting person would be a lot more likely to win money by betting on the Democratic side in the presidential, House and Senate elections of 2008. But at the same time, if in mid-summer 1975 someone told you Republicans would lose four incumbents and three more open seats in the Senate, it's pretty unlikely that you would have guessed Democrats would have faced near-identical losses.

There are plenty of dark holes in this election picture, and we can't yet see what lurks there.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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