The Stakes are High in the 2002 Congressional Elections

James Zogby’s Column

This year’s 2002 congressional elections will be important for several reasons.  With Republicans holding only a six-seat advantage in the House of Representatives and Democrats a one-seat advantage in the Senate, a handful of victories either way and the entire direction of governance could change.

Winning control of either House brings with it the power to run committees, define the legislative agenda, hire key congressional staff, and make President Bush’s political life either difficult or easy.

When Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2001, Bush suffered a significant setback.  Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, a lifelong Republican, abandoned the GOP, became an Independent and announced that he would vote with Senate Democrats because he had decided that the GOP had become too hardline conservative.  In an instant, Democratic Senator Tom Daschle became Majority Leader of the Senate, replacing Republican Trent Lott.  Democrats took control of all Senate committees, and President Bush lost his ability to easily move his appointments and legislation through the Senate.

The President is not running this year, it being what is called a mid-term election (meaning the election that occurs in the middle of the President’s four-year term).  Nevertheless, in many ways this election is all about the President and his policies.

With Bush’s war-time popularity at near 90% levels, Republicans are hoping to bask in his reflected light.  They want voters to view the election as a mandate on the President.  If it is, they feel they can regain control of the Senate and expand their control of the House of Representatives.

Polls taken in the past few months are encouraging to the Republicans. Prior to September 11, 2001, polls showed voters favoring Democrats by a margin of 5 to 8 percent.  Recent polls, on the other hand, now show Republicans benefiting from Bush’s strong favorable ratings.  In fact, they now lead Democrats by as much as 10%.

For their part, Democrats are focused on a strategy that seeks to separate the President’s war on terrorism from his economic and social policies.  These they will challenge in the November elections.

The opening round in this Democratic strategy came a week ago as Senator Daschle delivered a stinging attack on the President’s economic program.  Given Bush’s popularity, it was a risky move.  Daschle criticized Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut, arguing that it took so much out of annual federal revenues that it would return the U.S. to deficit spending.  As a result of the weakening economy, revenues could further decline, making it impossible for the Congress to fund programs that would provide support for those most affected by the deepening recession.

Bush immediately shot back restating his economic mantra that lower taxes would result in more money in the hands of the people, which, in his opinion, is the best way to restore growth to the economy.  The President further criticized Daschle’s rejection of his tax cut proposal noting that he would not allow any tax increases “over my dead body”.

Democrats take some comfort in the findings of some recent polls which have fueled their strategy.  One poll shows that after concern about terrorism, the economy is the voter’s greatest concern.  Another poll shows that although voters now give the President high ratings, that if, after a time, the economy doesn’t improve and needed social programs are not initiated, Bush’s ratings could drop significantly. 

Given the intense ideological divisions over these economic and social policies, they, not foreign policy, will define the ground on which the 2002 elections will be fought. 

And so the race is on to November, in what should prove to be a fascinating contest, with extremely high stakes for both parties.

A few additional points to make about the 2002 elections:

1-Not only was the 2000 Presidential election one of the closest in history, but the total votes in the 2000 congressional and senate races were extraordinarily close as well.  While only one-half of one percent separated Gore and Bush, the same was true if one added up all the votes given to Democratic candidates for Congress and those given to their Republican counterparts.

In reality, there is near absolute parity in the support given to the two parties.  This will no doubt affect the contests of 2002 as both Republicans and Democrats will be engaged in an intense competition for control of the Congress.

2-This is a year of reapportionment, an exercise the U.S. goes through every ten years.  There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, and the number of congressmen per state is proportional to each state’s population.

Every ten years, the U.S. conducts a census in order to calculate the number of congressmen appropriated to each state during the following decade.  After the census is complete, those states showing a proportional rise in population receive additional seat(s) in Congress and those reflecting a relative decline in population lose seat(s) in Congress.

Since U.S. congressional seats are elected on the district level, population shifts mean that each state must redraw congressional districts, creating new ones where necessary, eliminating some and combining others, so that the average population per district is approximately the same nationwide.

This year, as a result of population shifts recorded in the 2000 Census, 12 congressional seats will be added in 8 states, while 12 congressional seats will be lost in 9 states.  The states gaining seats are mainly in the South and West, while the states losing seats are mostly in the East and Midwest.

Given the rules of reapportionment in the affected states, new congressional maps must be drawn before November 2002.  Since in most cases this is to be done by the state legislatures and approved by their governors, and since in many of the affected states Republicans have the edge in controlling the legislatures and the governorships, it might appear that that party could have the edge in deciding new congressional district maps that will favor their candidates in November.

3-Even with reapportionment, most experts expect that the number of competitive races will be quite small.  It is estimated that only about 25 to 30 of the 435 congressional contests will be close-the rest will be retained by the party that presently controls them. 

In the Senate, it is estimated that only 6 of the 33 to be contested will be close.

4-Democrats are counting on a 50 year tradition playing out this year.  In every mid-term election held during the first term of a newly elected President, the President’s party has lost seats in Congress.  This pattern has held since Eisenhower was elected in 1952.  It will be recalled how Republicans took control in 1994, during Clinton’s first mid-term election.  Democrats hope that 2002 is their year.

In the end, it appears that a handful of races will define the shape of the U.S. government during the next two years.  A great deal of money will be spent and intense focus will be given to these contests, because the stakes are so high.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.