December 3, 2003


At what point does a political aberration evolve into a political absolute?

If the matter in question is Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives, which began with the 1994 election, then that aberration has become an absolute. By 2004 the Republicans will have controlled the House for 10 years -- which is 8 more than most political observers expected.

It is a near certainty that the Republicans, with a 229-206 majority, will keep control of the House in the 2004 elections. The Democrats would have to gain 12 seats to take over the House, and that just won't happen. In fact, presuming that the economy rebounds crisply next year, as now seems likely, and presuming that President George Bush wins a second term comfortably, the Republicans may actually gain up to 10 House seats.

But 2006 will be the House Republicans' critical year. Voter fatigue accumulates toward a president in his second term, and the president's party usually loses support in that mid-term congressional election. The only recent exception was 1998, when President Bill Clinton's Democrats, amid impeachment, gained three House seats and lost no Senate seats. If Bush is re-elected, and if the Republicans keep control of the U.S. House beyond 2006, they will be on the verge of establishing themselves as the dominant congressional party for the next generation.

The Democrats controlled the U.S. House from the 72nd Congress to the 103rd Congress, a period from 1931 to 1994. Only twice during that 64-year span did the Republicans win a majority: in the 80th Congress (1947-48) and the 83rd Congress (1953-54).

The Republicans had a 246-188 majority in the 80th Congress, but they lost 75 seats in the Truman landslide of 1948, declining to a 263-171 minority. The Republicans took a 221-213 majority in the 83rd Congress, riding the crest of Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 landslide, but they lost 17 seats in 1954, two in 1956 and 48 in 1958.

The Republicans were an insignificant 295-140 minority in the 89th Congress (1965-66), following Lyndon Johnson's sweeping victory. They gained seats thereafter, rising to 192 in the 1972 election, but after the Watergate scandals and Richard Nixon's resignation, the Republicans were drubbed in 1974, dropping to a 291-144 minority. They inched back, although after the 1992 elections the Democrats still held a sizable 259-176 majority.

Then, in 1994, the Republicans did the seemingly impossible, gaining 54 House seats and taking a 230-205 majority, the party's first in 40 years.

The reason for that political upheaval was more geographic than political. To be sure, Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" resonated with voters, and Clinton was monumentally unpopular. But it was the culmination of a political realignment in the South that brought the Republicans their majority and which has kept them in their majority since.

In 1942 the 14 states of the South -- Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky -- elected 128 congressmen, of which 125 were Democrats. The Democrats then had a 222-209 House majority, meaning that more than half of the House Democrats were Southerners. It also meant that of the 307 non-Southern House seats, the Republicans had to win 215, or more than two-thirds, to get a majority. With Democratic machines in big cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, that was impossible.

By 1952, following the 1950 census, little had changed. The South elected 126 congressmen that year, of which 118 were Democrats. Of the 309 other seats, Democrats needed just 100 for their majority. Surprisingly, in the Eisenhower landslide, they failed. Republicans won 213 of those 309 seats, to the Democrats' 96.

But, outside the South, 1950s political trends favored the Democrats, especially in the East and in California, and Republicans lost dozens of seats. In 1962 the South elected 124 congressmen, of which 109 were Democrats. The good news for the Republicans was that they now had 15 Southern congressmen, primarily from urban and suburban areas in Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, along with a few seats in the mountain areas of east Tennessee and Kentucky. The bad news was that, of the 311 non-Southern seats, the Democrats won 150 (to the Republicans' 161), enough to give the Democrats a solid 258-176 majority. As it was back in the 1940s, there was just no way the Republicans in the 1960s could win two-thirds of the non-Southern seats.

In the South, up until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was dominated by white voters, because blacks didn't or couldn't vote. States like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina still had black populations exceeding 33 percent, even though there had been black migration to the North for three decades. But few of those blacks voted in Democratic primaries. So the South sent conservative white congressmen to Washington who voted with the Republicans on most issues and who rose to committee chairmanships due to seniority.

After John Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Johnson embarked on a civil rights crusade, had his Democratic Congress, then with a 295-140 House majority and a 68-32 Senate majority, pass the Voting Rights Act, and immediately transformed the national Democrats into a party attractive to black voters. Southern Republicans, most of whom were disgruntled Democrats, were shrewd enough to discern that they now had a chance to realign the South and emerge triumphant by appealing to white voters.

In 1972, after the 1970 census reflected Southern growth and added eight new congressional districts (for a total of 132 representatives), the South elected 35 Republicans and 97 Democrats. That was a Republican gain of 20 in a decade, but a combination of factors, including the Nixon/Watergate scandal, Georgian Jimmy Carter's election to the presidency in 1976, and generational and cultural resistance by rural whites to embracing the Republican Party, stymied Republican growth during the 1970s. Even though surging numbers of blacks voted in Democratic primaries, whites still dominated, and Republicans only won statewide elections when a black or liberal candidate was nominated.

In 1982, in 133 Southern districts, the Republicans won 37 and the won Democrats 96. But the "Reagan Revolution" had turned most hard-core Dixiecrats into Republicans, and the Voting Rights Act mandated the creation of "majority-minority" congressional districts. That meant black-majority districts, and it meant that black voters had to be compacted into a few districts in the 1992 remap.

In 1992 the South was up to 140 congressional seats, of which 15 were new black-majority districts (for a total of 17 black congressman); in that election, the Republicans won 52 seats, to the Democrats' 88. But there was definite trend: Republicans had picked up 15 seats since 1982, and the removal of blacks from suburban and rural districts made them a lot whiter and more Republican. As a result, in 1994, of the Republicans' national 54-seat gain, 21 came from the South. By 2002 the Republicans had picked up an additional 12 seats, and they controlled 86 of 145 from the region. Of the 59 Democrats, 17 are black, five are Hispanic and 37 are white, and at least a dozen of those 37 come from rural or suburban districts which will fall to the Republicans when they retire.

In fact, a delayed congressional remap by the Republicans in Texas, where the Democrats now hold a 17-15 majority, could add as many as six more Republican congressmen. The 2001 remap was decreed by a federal court, and the Constitution states that it must be done by the state legislature. Republicans won control of the Texas legislature in 2002, and they drew new lines this year. The Democrats are appealing, but a 21-11 Republican majority in the delegation is likely.

Republicans, in the South, are slowly approaching the regional dominance of the Democrats during the 1970s and 1980s, when they had 90-some members. During that period, the Democrats kept their House majority, ranging from a low of 242 to a high of 292. With the Texas situation, and with the possibility of pick-ups in Louisiana and Kentucky (offset by a possible loss in Georgia, which was remapped by the Democrats in 2001), the Republicans will surely crack 90 in 2004, which will keep them in the 230-plus House majority range.

Unless the economy remains stagnant, the Democrats may have to wait until 2012 to retake the House, after the 2011 remaps, and then only if the Democrats regain control of state legislatures in key states. Of the East's 92 seats, the Democrats hold a 56-36 majority, including 19-10 in New York and 10-0 in Massachusetts, but the Republican majority is 12-7 in Pennsylvania; there are few vulnerable Republican seats. Of the West's 98, Democrats hold a 53-45 majority, based on their 33-20 edge in the California delegation; of the 45 non-California seats, Republicans prevail 25-20. At best, there are a half-dozen Republican seats that could flip. The Democrats have maxed out in California, Oregon and Washington. Of the Midwest's 100 seats, Republicans have a 61-39 edge bolstered by breakouts of 10-9 in Illinois, 12-6 in Ohio and 9-6 in Michigan. Only a farm recession could hurt the Republicans.

The bottom line: The Republicans' Southern strategy for retaking the House worked, and they now have a solid 85 to 90 Southern seats, so the only way minority leader Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker is if the Democrats go on a tear in the Midwest. And that, at present, is wishful thinking.