Friedman: Senate Control Within GOP’s Reach, but Tea Party Could Weaken Grasp

The Washington Update’s Andy Friedman explains why gerrymandering and the rise of independent voters will shape midterm and 2016 presidential elections

Andy Friedman of The Washington Update. Andy Friedman of The Washington Update.

Control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections is within the GOP’s grasp, but Republican prospects for retaking the Senate and the White House in 2016 could easily fade if the party tilts too far to the right, according to Andy Friedman of the Washington Update.

In his latest report, the political analyst argues that the same forces that currently favor the GOP in midterm elections also potentially limit how far it can go, and similarly goes far to explain why partisanship is the worst it has been in the three decades Friedman has been in Washington.

The key reason for today’s deadlocked politics stems from gerrymandering, the system by which statehouses draw up political districts to maximize electoral gains for the party in power in state capitals.

Because the GOP dominated state legislatures at the time of the 2010 census, they created electoral districts maximizing safe seats for Republicans, just as Democrats did in the state legislatures they controlled. In either case, residual seats not winnable by the party in power ended up as safe seats for the weaker party.

The result, Friedman says, is that “most House members do not need to be concerned about winning the general election” but rather must focus instead on staving off any primary challenges.

“If a Republican incumbent is not viewed as sufficiently conservative, then he or she may face a successful primary challenge from a right-wing candidate (say, a member of the Tea Party). A Democratic incumbent can face a similar challenge from the left,” Friedman writes.

Because of this ideological polarization, the parties can seldom compromise except in cases of what Friedman terms “forcing events,” such as the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling, occasions where the consequences of inaction are intolerable.

Important issues that don’t rise to that level, in contrast, operate in today’s supercharged partisan terms.

For example, the Senate can pass compromise legislation on immigration reform but get blocked in the House; though Republicans are eager to broaden their base to include Hispanics, House GOP members in safe seats that often don’t contain many Hispanics subject themselves to a primary challenge if they buck opposition to what conservatives call “amnesty.”

Friedman employs today’s heightened partisanship as a framework to explain current electoral realities, starting with the GOP’s all-but-certain maintenance of control of the House of Representatives.

Since nearly all members are in safe districts, the electoral composition is unlikely to change much — just nine of 435 seats are even considered competitive.

Republican prospects for a takeover the Senate should be good. That is because 24 of the 35 contested seats are held by Democrats, who thus have more to lose, and the GOP needs just six seats to claim the majority.

What’s more, there are seven states that look particularly winnable for the GOP based on political trends — a majority of these states switched loyalty from the Democrats to the Republicans in the last presidential election.

But here’s where gerrymandered politics may collide with electoral math: 42% of voters today describe themselves as independents, compared to just 25% of voters who register as Republicans.

So if the GOP fields more ideological candidates versus the moderates that are more likely to attract the far larger share of independent voters, then Friedman considers it “unlikely” that Republicans can gain the Senate.

This is precisely what happened in the 2012 elections, where the GOP actually lost Senate seats sought by its more ideologically conservative candidates though many analysts foresaw Republican victory in the upper chamber.

Beyond the midterms, expect more political intractability outside of forcing events such as a response to a terrorist act. As for 2016, Friedman reminds that just as Hillary Clinton was widely expected to be the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate in 2006, much can happen before 2016 to change that race.

Republican chances of retaking the White House may depend on the ability of a moderate “to run the primary gauntlet and win the nomination (without being pushed too far right in the process),” thus increasing the ability to attract independents, Friedman says.

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