The LABI Report: Who will control Congress?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 17, 2002


Will President George W. Bush’s popularity save the day for congressional Republicans?

Will historical patterns hold and give Democrats total control of Congress?

The answers to these questions will become more evident as congressional redistricting is finalized and congressional primaries kick off around the nation.

One of the axioms of modern American politics is that the party of the incumbent president loses ground in Congress in mid-term elections. Statistically speaking that may be true, but statistics don’t always tell the whole story.

Strong undercurrents and subtle nuances argue against looking to historical patterns to predict which party will end up in control of the House and Senate come next January.

While ultimate control is very much up in the air, early indications are that the almost evenly divided House and Senate will likely remain that way.

One of the most significant cross currents to consider in analyzing the congressional races is the impact redistricting will have on the elections.

The fact that Republicans hold a majority of governorships and have achieved parity in control of state legislatures led many prognosticators to believe the GOP would end up gaining 10 or more new House seats strictly through reapportionment.

Now that the redistricting plans are almost complete, Michael Barone – who is one of the leading experts on American politics – estimates that Republicans will pick up approximately five new House seats through the reapportionment process.

While this is below initial expectations for the GOP, a five-seat increase would be welcomed by a party that currently maintains only an 11-seat margin. Other major undercurrents in the congressional elections are the strength of President Bush’s popularity and the condition of the economy next fall.

The events of Sept. 11 have converted a president who was somewhat suspect on foreign affairs into a folk hero. He has united the country behind the war on terrorism and has maintained popularity ratings of over 80 percent.

If the president’s popularity remains high, and if he chooses to become deeply involved in key congressional races, the Bush factor could help the Republicans maintain control of the House and regain control of the Senate.

Ironically, the best antidote the Democrats have to combat the Bush factor in the elections is a continuing weak economy.

One historical analysis that always seems to be true is that voters vote their pocketbooks more than foreign affairs at election time.

If unemployment is still high and the economy is still faltering come next fall, congressional Republicans could be in for a rough time. Democrats on the Hill have based their election strategy on the economy.

They praise Bush for the war effort while calling him and his Republican allies economic dunces.

Polls indicate that strategy is not working at this juncture, but if the economy gets worse, it may turn the tide for the Democrats.

In all likelihood, about 30 highly contested races out of hundreds on the ballot will end up deciding who controls Congress.

Political experts, such as Barone and Charles Cook of the “Cook Political Report,” currently view three senators from each party as being significantly vulnerable.

They also see fewer than 25 House races that will likely go down to the wire.

That means huge sums of money and maximum influence will be focused on these races, since their results will determine if current Speaker Denny Hastert or Dick Gephardt will serve as Speaker of the House; if current President Tom Daschle or a Republican will serve as President of the Senate; and if George Bush has his party in control of Congress or must deal with the Democrats from a position of parity, not strength.

The congressional races may not look too exciting in Louisiana at the moment, but nationally the stakes are high.

DAN JUNEAU is the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.