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Donkey Kong

Four reasons why this week's Democratic takeover may be just the beginning


  • Illustration by Doug MacDonald

It's hard to overstate the size and scope of the Democratic Party's gains in the 2006 elections, which will be realized this week when the winners are sworn into office at the national, state and local levels.

Most political observers believe that the Democrats' gains were mostly a one-time rejection of all things Republican, thanks to the worsening situation in Iraq and a host of ethics scandals in Congress. But there is good reason to think that this is just the beginning of a period of political ascendancy for the Democratic Party.

A number of factors, long in development from demographic trends to a favorable 2008 Senate reshuffling, and even a new-found, hard-won political competence in the Democratic Party itself are lined up favorably, offering strong grounds for optimism among liberals.

Nobody's counting any chickens before they hatch. But it's worth noting that Americans aren't showing any post-Election Day buyers' remorse. On the contrary, they overwhelmingly approve of the Democrats' impending takeover of Congress, and prefer a Democratic to a Republican presidential victor in 2008 by healthy margins.

Here are four signs that this week's changing of the congressional guard will, in retrospect, help mark the start of a new, blue era in American politics.

1. Congressional numbers game

Although both houses of Congress just flipped to Democratic control, it was not by huge margins. But despite the thin leads, neither house is likely to flip back any time soon.

If anything, the Democrats' slim 51-49 edge in the Senate figures to expand significantly in 2008, when the Democrats will have to defend just 12 of the seats they now hold, while 21 Republican seats will be in play. Some neutral observers are already predicting a four-seat gain for the Democrats in '08 and at least one Democratic pundit comes in at nine.

Observers are aiming high for Senate Democrats because most of their dozen open seats in 2008 are considered safe bets for the blue column. They include those currently held by John Kerry (Mass.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Joe Biden (Del.) and John Rockefeller (W. Va.).

The Republican list includes some safe-looking seats too, but also quite a few tenuous ones.

Even some apparently safe GOP seats could look very different if Barack Obama is on the '08 national ticket as the Democratic nominee for either president or vice president. That could spur historic black turnout, potentially putting Senate seats in play in Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. The potential effect of Hillary Clinton on women's turnout, or of Bill Richardson on Hispanics', might also be felt, though presumably to a lesser extent.

In yet another good sign for Senate Dems, the Republicans will likely be plunged into infighting. In the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, the hard right, led by the ornery Club for Growth, challenged incumbent Republicans from the right. And it was perfectly willing to lose seats altogether on the altar of principle, as happened to Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. In 2008, the same could happen to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among others.

You can understand why, despite the current narrow margin, Republicans fear they "may not have another realistic shot at getting the majority back until 2012," as Chuck Todd recently wrote in the National Journal.

  • Illustration by Doug MacDonald

In the lower chamber, the Dems are also slated to keep their gains, and could increase them. Political observers point out that the House of Representatives rarely changes party control. That's largely because of the almost sure-bet re-election of incumbents. Blame it on whatever you want: district gerrymandering, campaign-finance law, name recognition, or the basic tendency of most voters to not change their minds dramatically in two years. The truism hasn't changed. Even in last month's dramatic shift, more than 94 percent of congressional incumbents running for re-election won right in line with historical averages, as political analyst Charlie Cook has observed, although down from the 98-plus rates of the past five elections.

Barring the kind of radical national rejection just experienced by their counterparts, Democrats are unlikely to lose their House majority anytime soon unless a large number of Democrats in moderate districts resign, creating open battles.

In fact, exactly the opposite is likely, say observers like Mark Gersh, Washington director of the progressive National Committee for an Effective Congress [NCEC]. Republican congressmen, many of whom have never served in the minority, are about to find out just how little fun it is without the perks and privileges of power, he says. Don't be surprised to see Republicans head for more lucrative offers in the private sector.

Meanwhile, fundraising and candidate recruiting are always harder for the minority party, and easier for the majority.

"The DCCC's [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] recruiting in '06 was impressive, and I think '08 will be even better," Gersh says.

Plus, Democrats can now introduce their best issues into the national discussion and remind the American people what they like about the party. New Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's "First 100 Hours" plan may be gimmicky, but votes on raising the minimum wage, offering tax credits for college tuition and allowing negotiation for lower prescription-drug costs will remind average Americans just how little the Republicans did for them when they controlled the federal government.

2. Statehouse control

The Democrats' gains in state governments were no less dramatic, as anyone in Colorado knows well. They took over six governors' chairs, three state senates, and seven state lower houses. Roughly 50 million Americans who have been living under a Republican governor are getting a Democratic one in January.

The Democrats' share of state legislative seats is at its highest since before the 1994 Republican revolution despite large declines in the Deep South, where the old "blue dog" Democrats no longer dominate state politics. Four years ago, Democrats held 43 of the 98 available chambers (Nebraska's Legislature is nonpartisan); they now control 56.

"You're seeing a Democratic ascendancy that is not just regional," says Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The state-level gains reflect voter frustration with more than the Iraq war and congressional-Republican corruption, says Davies. As a stingy and disinterested federal government has pushed more and more problems down to the states, "there's an increased awareness that state legislatures are where important work gets done," Davies says.

Republicans made huge gains on the state level in the mid-to-late 1990s, as very active conservatives, focusing on issues like taxes and abortion, out-organized Democrats who had less enthusiasm about fighting for their own issues at the state level.

"They've done a great job of having this nationalized message," Davies says.

But over time, budget-pressed states have begun showing the results of neglect in different ways from crumbling infrastructure to reduced services and it's been Democrats who've been offering solutions.

  • Illustration by Doug MacDonald

"This was the first year that nationalized message didn't work (for Republicans)," Davies says, "and they found they really didn't have anything else."

This is not just a reflection of voter sentiment; the shift of power on the state and local levels will also shape national politics in the year to come. State legislatures can set the public agenda, and governors have enormous influence on how a state votes, particularly in presidential elections. Heading into the 2008 campaign, 10 of the 14 "battleground states" will have Democratic governors.

Perhaps more important, Democrats can now block Republican attempts to gerrymander congressional districts in their favor. This power will become critical after the 2010 census, when changes in each state's number of representatives will require redistricting. But it's also an immediate concern, since the Supreme Court ruled that states can redistrict any time, on their own whim.

In 2000, Republicans were way better prepared and organized for the multi-front, complex battles over redistricting and seriously outmaneuvered the Democrats. Then, the Democrats were caught napping when Republicans in Texas, and later elsewhere, moved for redistricting in mid-decade, something never tried before.

But now, the DLCC, civil-service-workers union AFSCME and the NCEC have created a redistricting nerve center, to anticipate and plan for every circumstance well before the 2010 census. If the Democrats can hold on to, or expand, their gains in state offices, redistricting might actually prove a boon to them this time around.

3. Not enough married, middle-aged white men

Exit polls from recent elections show that Democrats are the preferred candidates among African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, low-income households, middle-income households, young adults, singles ... just about everybody except married white men and stay-at-home wives.

Demographics are strongly on the Democrats' side. According to one study, using racial and ethnic voting patterns from the 2004 presidential election and projected population growth, Democrats will net a gain of 3.4 million votes nationally by 2020. Four states that voted for Bush would be flipped to the Democrats, simply by demographic fate.

Those figures will actually be much higher if a) immigration reform speeds the citizenship process for current noncitizen residents, and b) Hispanics continue to vote the way they did in 2006.

In 2004, 44 percent of Latinos voted Republican in U.S. House races. This year, after the right's relentless demonizing of the brown-skinned, that number plummeted to 29 percent.

And in a closely watched runoff election on the southern Texas border this month, congressional incumbent Henry Bonilla was beaten in a stunning upset, in large part because he wanted to build a wall on the district's border with Mexico.

"There really is a genuine concern that Republicans in the House of Representatives did long-term damage to the party by pursuing an approach to the immigration challenge that was largely perceived as anti-immigrant," says Adam J. Segal, former director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Segal and other experts caution that Hispanic voting patterns are hard to predict; Hispanic-Americans consist of many different cultures and communities, all of which will take their own political paths.

But a make-or-break point could be looming in the 2008 Republican presidential-nominating process. In it, John McCain, a senator from a heavily Hispanic state who co-authored immigrant-friendly reform legislation, will face a swarm of immigrant-bashers like Mitt Romney. If the party rejects McCain, that might seal the deal and the Hispanic vote could be the Democrats' for a generation.

  • Illustration by Doug MacDonald

Meanwhile, 2006 pretty well proved that the Republican plan to draw in the black vote, primarily using social issues like gay marriage, has come a cropper. Every significant black Republican candidate lost, and the black vote went as high as ever to Democrats thanks in part, perhaps, to George "Macaca" Allen and perceived racist ads against Harold Ford Jr. and Deval Patrick, but probably due more to the corpses returning from Iraq and a longstanding preference for Democrats' stands on civil justice and economic issues.

And the gender gap continues to increase. Unmarried women supported Democrats for Congress by a two-to-one margin this year. Working women, married or not, are voting solidly Democratic, and young women overwhelmingly so.

4. This is the modern world

Young voters those 18 to 29 were by far the most likely age group to vote Democratic in the 2006 congressional election, at 60 percent. A majority of those in the "millennial generation" voted for John Kerry in 2004. There is strong reason to suspect that this will be the most solidly Democratic generation since the Progressive Era.

That's not because they're a bunch of lefties; they aren't. What they are is residents of 21st century America, a place where the Republican Party seems incredibly ill at ease.

Young adults needn't hold a shared opinion about John Maynard Keynes to agree that 82-year-old Alaska Senator Ted "Tubes" Stevens shouldn't be in charge of Internet regulation.

Millennials, immersed from birth in science and technology, have a strong moral compass, but simply don't share the skittishness that the Republican Party seems to have about global warming, embryonic stem-cell research, end-of-life issues, sex education and indecency on the airwaves.

This rising generation is also far, far removed from the era when America underwent its turbulent 20th-century reshaping of attitudes about race, gender and religion. For those under 30, diversity and equality are a given: Two-fifths of their peers are something other than white and non-Hispanic, compared with one-fourth among those over age 40. Their gay friends are not only out, they are holding hands in public. And geography no longer separates those who are different in today's interconnected culture. The old collective yearning for some idealized, 1950s-style homogeneity makes no sense among MySpace friends.

Which is why this year's immigration debate was about much more than race and nationality, suggests Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network in Washington. It was, he thinks, part of an even more fundamental decision to accept or reject the modern world a world filled with people of different nationalities, languages, tastes and sexual preferences.

By calling for the mass deportation of Latinos and the building of a wall to keep them out, "the Republicans may have made a decision not to be a political party of the 21st century," Rosenberg says.

And it's hard not to notice that the Republican Party looks like it's from another century. Of 251 Republican members of the upcoming Congress, all but four are non-Hispanic whites. Just 12 percent are women. That's true, too, on the state level, where a mere 15 percent of Republican state legislators nationwide are women and declining in numbers.

The fact that every Republican face on TV looks like Archie Bunker makes it all the more damaging when a Trent Lott pines for the glory days of an overtly racist presidential candidate, when a George Allen calls a dark-skinned person "macaca" and assumes he's an immigrant, when a Rick Santorum equates homosexuality with bestiality, or when, just two weeks ago, Congressman Virgil Goode warned that America is in danger because a Muslim is entering Congress.

This is an especially vulnerable time for the Republican Party, and a unique opportunity for the Democrats. For the first time in ages, both parties will have wide-open, hotly contested, multi-candidate presidential nomination battles. The side-by-side process is sure to shape Americans' views of the two parties.

From the looks of it, the Democrats will offer a youthful, energetic, diverse group of centrist candidates, while the Republican debates will feature what looks like a roomful of cantankerous uncles who shout "Turn down that rock 'n roll garbage!" when you play Kanye West too loud. Which one looks like the party of the future to you?

David S. Bernstein is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this article originally appeared.

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