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While Republicans revel in the fact that they strengthened their hold on the U.S. House of Representatives in the midterm elections, some analysts are speculating that certain Democratic members of Congress might be ready to cross over to the Republican Party.
At press time Republicans had secured 228 seats – a pickup of five – with an open seat in Colorado’s 7th District, being fought over by Republican Bob Beauprez and Democrat Mike Feeley, still in dispute. Special elections will be required to determine the outcome of Louisiana’s 5th District, an open seat, for which neither Democrat Rodney Alexander nor Republican Lee Fletcher were able to obtain the required 50 percent of the vote and in Hawaii where deceased Democratic Rep. Patsy Mink received the majority vote when her name could not be removed from the ballot. Both special elections are slated for December.
Redistricting in the states pitted eight House incumbents against one another. Consistent with the general mood of the electorate, Republicans picked up three of the four. In the 19th District of Illinois, Republican John Shimkus defeated Democrat David Phelps by a 10-point margin. In Mississippi, Republican Charles “Chip” Pickering Jr. mustered 64 percent of the vote to oust Democratic fellow incumbent Ronnie Shows. Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson pulled out a victory over Democrat James Maloney, 54 percent to 43 percent. But the GOP’s George W. Gekas lost to Democratic fellow incumbent Tim Holden in a 51-49 percent squeaker in Pennsylvania.
Most political analysts had predicted that Republicans would remain the majority party in the House, but few expected the GOP to pick up seats. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, saw it coming and predicted Republican gains of four to five seats. Sabato attributes the Republican surge to the popularity of the president, telling Insight, “[President George W.] Bush is the reason! His last 10 days of travel were very impressive.” Sabato also cited Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., of the National Republican Congressional Committee for his strategic leadership and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for his aggressive campaign travel, saying, “He was everywhere.”
Davis credits an unlikely source for Republican success. “I want to thank Roy Barnes for the law of unintended consequences,” the savvy Virginian tells Insight. Barnes is the Democratic governor of Georgia who, according to Republicans, was “so partisan in redistricting” the state that he energized the conservative base. This led to the victory of Saxby Chambliss, after the redrawing of his congressional district led him to run for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Max Cleland – and to Barnes’ own defeat at the hands of Republican Sonny Perdue.
Davis also tells Insight the Democratic nightmare might not be over, noting: “There is a good prospect of conservative Democrats crossing over” to the GOP. He would not name names, but indicated some Democrats are concerned they are being tainted by the liberal wing of their party. He says Republicans “are making a concerted effort to roll out the red carpet” for colleagues on the other side of the aisle who might be considering a change in party affiliation.
Republicans also credit aggressive efforts to turn out the party base, citing Texas GOP Whip Tom DeLay’s “Operation STOMP” (Strategic Task Force for the Organization and Mobilization of People). Steve Schmidt, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says it involved “deploying resources into the most competitive races to work the precincts and knock on doors. … [This was] a very successful program.”
Democrats, seemingly in seclusion, were unavailable to answer Insight’s questions, but eventually provided a statement from Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. It said in part, “Last night was a rough night for Democrats around the nation – this election was a referendum on a popular wartime president and the wind was in our face. And, thus far, voters have concluded that Sept. 11 caused the economic downturn we are dealing with now. Voters haven’t blamed Republicans for the economy … yet.”
Schmidt responds: “The secret was indeed the economy. Despite the Democrats’ rhetoric, the people trust Republicans on matters dealing with the economy.” He adds, “Democrats paid a heavy price for playing politics with issues that are important to the people, such as homeland security, tax cuts and terrorism insurance.” Within hours, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., let it be known that he would give up his post, reportedly to run for president in 2004, and the Democrats began to point fingers and wrangle among themselves along ideological lines.
Scott Wheeler is a reporter for Insight. John Berlau contributed to this report..