Watching Minority Leader John Boehner implore his House colleagues to get off their "dead asses" and help raise money for the struggling National Republican Congressional Committee is a helpful reminder of the importance of morale in determining the balance of power in Congress. When all is said and done, the number of seats lost by the Republican Party will be determined not by how strong Democrats are in November, but by how many of the GOP's own members decide to throw in the towel. The fact that Republicans already have more open seats to defend today (29) than Democrats had in 1996 (28) suggests that they see little hope for regaining their majority in 2008.
Republicans have every reason in the world to be depressed. The indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., last week was the latest painful reminder of shoes yet to drop before November. The one factor that gave many Republicans a flicker of hope, the prospect of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on top of the Democratic ticket, also looks increasingly dim. Plus, the fact that Republicans are going to be forced to spend a disproportionate amount of their (currently small) war chest defending open seats means they'll have to limit the number of vulnerable Democratic incumbents they can target.
In many ways, it shouldn't be surprising that GOP House members are feeling as pessimistic as their base. The "enthusiasm" gap has already shown up in turnout for the presidential primaries. And for all the talk about a Democratic base frustrated by the party's inaction on Iraq, Republicans are actually more critical of their party in Congress. The latest Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF], taken Feb. 14-17, shows that while voters in both parties are critical of Congress, Republican voters rank their members lower than Democrats rank theirs. Thirty-nine percent of Democrats disapprove of the job their party is doing in Congress (13 percent strongly), while 45 percent of Republicans disapprove of the job their party is doing in Congress (22 percent strongly).
Why does this matter? 2010. The next midterm election is still two years away, but it's highly possible that by then Democrats will control not only the House and Senate, but the White House as well. And, as students of political history know, a president's first midterm election, especially one where his or her party controls all three branches, is typically disastrous for the party in power. From 1974 to 1998, the party holding the White House has lost an average of 22 seats in the first midterm election after gaining it.
Today, Democrats have a 14-seat majority in the House. Obviously, the bigger the margin for Democrats going into 2010, the better their odds of weathering a tough midterm election year with their majority -- albeit a smaller one -- intact.
One other interesting note about a potential 2009 Congress: Bipartisanship won't be easy to come by. By now we know that all the White House candidates want to be able to "reach across the aisle" to get things done. But if a Democrat wins the White House, there are going to be fewer hands to touch on the other side. The list of outgoing GOP members is a who's who of figures traditionally open to compromise, including Tom Davis (Va.), Heather Wilson (N.M.) and Jim Ramstad (Minn.). If Democrats oust Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, they will also have succeeded in knocking off the last of the New England House Republicans.
The Senate is the same story, with potential Democratic wins there coming at the expense of moderate Republicans, such as retiring Sen. John Warner (Va.), and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (N.H.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.). If some or all of those Republicans are replaced with Democrats in 2009, a Democratic president would need to rely on his or her own party more than ever.