GOP Unruffled by Tuesday Election Results
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In this country, the Republican leaders of Congress suffered a defeat of their own. Lawmakers dropped a plan to open an Alaska wilderness area to oil drilling. That does not mean the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is finished. It does mean that Republican moderates forced the measure out of a major budget bill. In that bill, Republican Party leaders are working to cut billions of dollars in federal spending.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
That defeat for Republican leaders came after a pair of defeats in elections this week. Democrats won governors' races in both New Jersey and Virginia. Now there's debate over what those elections mean. Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON reporting:
There's a ritual after every off-year election: the winners always say the results have national significance; the losers always insist that all politics is local. Here's Democratic political consultant Jim Margolis.
Mr. JIM MARGOLIS (Democratic Political Consultant): If Republicans were looking for light at the end of the tunnel yesterday, what they probably got was another locomotive. For the president, and Republican leaders, they put a lot on the line to try to pull these races off, and, really, from New Jersey to California, it was defeat after defeat, and this is a big shot in the arm for Democrats going into 2006.
LIASSON: It was a boost to Democratic morale to beat back Arnold Schwarzenegger's ballot proposals in California to win by a bigger-than-expected margin in New Jersey and to triumph in what Democrats are referring to as `the bright red state of Virginia.' But Republicans, like consultant Whit Ayers, say all those results mean very little for the future.
Mr. WHIT AYERS (Republican Consultant): You always like to win rather than lose, but the results in these off-year elections really have very few implications for national elections the following year. In the case of Virginia, when Republican Governor Jim Gilmore won in 1997, the Republican Party lost five seats in the House the next year. When Democratic Governor Mark Warner won in 2001, the Democrats lost eight seats in the House the following year.
LIASSON: In fact, history shows that off-year elections are not reliable predictors for the next political cycle. But they do have a psychological effect, and that matters, says non-partisan analyst Charlie Cook.
Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Non-Partisan Analyst): The president's had a horrible year, and it sort of contributes to a snowballing, and right now you've got Republican members of Congress that are on the verge of stampeding. They're terrified. And this just sort of raises their anxiety level, raises their willingness to buck the president on legislative matters. They're scared to death.
LIASSON: But Republican Whit Ayers says they shouldn't be.
Mr. AYERS: The Republicans need to look at the data rather than listen to the spin. They need to keep to the basics, make sure they've got an attractive message that's in tune with their constituents, don't panic, don't do anything stupid or crazy, and the Republicans will be fine. Most incumbents get re-elected. There are very few open seats, either in the House or the Senate.
LIASSON: Incumbency has tremendous power. Historically, open seats, where no incumbent is on the ballot, are the true battlegrounds. In the House, another reason why there are so few competitive races is because most congressional district lines are drawn to give incumbents of both parties safe seats. That structural advantage should help protect the majority Republicans next year. But one of the big debates among political professionals today is whether next year is shaping up to be a sea-change election, where the incumbent party suffers big losses in the political equivalent of a tidal wave. Charlie Cook says he sees some signs.
Mr. COOK: Everything that's ever gone wrong in a second term that's caused these catastrophic elections, six-year-itch elections they call them, is happening on one level or another right now. You know, there are structural reasons why it's very hard for Republicans to lose control of the House or Senate, but this environment really is going to test those structural obstacles to Democrats taking control.
LIASSON: To get over those obstacles, Democrats say they'll be trying to apply some lessons of the off-year elections. In Virginia, Democrat Tim Keane got a huge boost from the popularity of outgoing Governor Mark Warner. But he also ran as a centrist pro-life Democrat who could talk openly about his religious faith, attributes that might help Democrats win in other red states. And Republicans will be trying to figure out how to run in an environment where having the president come in and campaign is no guarantee of victory, even in states where the president won handily just one year ago. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: By the way, our senior Washington editor Ron Elving sizes up Tuesday's vote and says it was not a referendum on President Bush. You can read his column at npr.org.
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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