The Hard Road to 15

Everyone knows that for Democrats to capitalize on bad Republican poll numbers they need to win in open seats and beat Republican incumbents in Democratic districts. But they probably need more than that.

Research Fellow John C. Fortier
In past big-swing midterm elections, the surging party has knocked off a large number of freshmen. The number of vulnerable Republican freshmen in 2006, however, is small, further complicating Democrats’ prospects.

Like college freshmen, congressional freshmen become more institutionally ensconced after their first terms. Political scientists call this phenomenon “sophomore surge.” On average, members of Congress get a higher vote percentage in their first reelection race than they did in their initial election, and they also improve their vote percentages more than established incumbents.

Sophomore surge makes sense. New members of Congress begin to gain the strengths of incumbency: name recognition, fundraising ability, the potential to scare off strong challengers, etc.

But while on average, freshmen improve their performance, they are still more vulnerable than longer entrenched incumbents. This can be seen most vividly in recent midterm elections where there has been a swing to one party of 25 seats or more: 1994, 1982, 1974 and 1966.

In 1994, Republicans beat 37 Democratic incumbents; 16 were freshmen. In 1982, Democrats beat 23 incumbents, 12 of them freshmen. In 1974, Democrats beat 39 GOP incumbents, 11 freshmen. In 1966, Republicans beat 43 Democratic incumbents, 26 freshmen. Back in 1946, 63 Democratic incumbents lost, 35 of them freshmen.

The vulnerability of freshmen is illustrated by an anecdote told by former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) in his autobiography, Honor in the House (with Jeffrey Biggs). In a brief orientation speech, Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) told Foley’s 1964 freshman class that “Sam Rayburn always said a member of Congress can be elected by accident, but seldom re-elected by accident.” For Foley, “the message was subtle but clear, if you come back in two years’ time, after you have been, hopefully, re-elected, we’ll begin to take you seriously.”

So in a political climate that favors Democrats, GOP freshmen are an obvious target. In each big midterm swing year, there was a big freshman class, over 73 in each class, with a whopping 110 freshmen before the 1994 elections. Compare that to only 44 freshmen in the 109th (including those who have won special elections). Of those freshmen, 27 are Republicans.

The small number of freshmen is a result of a more polarized electorate, relatively safe districts drawn in redistricting and a series of close elections with little turnover.

Looking more carefully, it is hard to find more than a handful of vulnerable freshmen. On the GOP side, six might face tough races: Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Geoff Davis (Ky.), Thelma Drake (Va.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Mike Sodrel (Ind.). If you stretch, you might add Charles Boustany (La.) and Randy Kuhl (N.Y.). These seats are competitive but not definite pickups for the Democrats. President Bush won each of those districts in 2004, with the exception of Fitzpatrick’s and Reichert’s, which both went 51-48 for John Kerry.

And Democratic freshmen John Barrow (Ga.), Melissa Bean (Ill.) and Charlie Melancon (La.) also have tough fights ahead, with Bean and Melancon running in districts that Bush won handily in 2004.

Democrats’ justifiable optimism has to be tempered by the low number of open seats and the small number of Republicans who sit in districts Kerry won in 2004. Add to that the small number of freshmen and 15 seats to get to the majority seems like a big number.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.

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