Washington Voters seem to think Congress is like a weedy lot — that anything done to it will improve it — so they seem poised to produce something not seen since 1981-82. Then, for the first time since 1952, a majority of senators were in their first terms. This was the result of three consecutive churning elections — 1976, 1978 and 1980.
There certainly will be new senators from 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia. Furthermore, Alaska’s incumbent Lisa Murkowski, who the American Conservative Union ranks as the fourth-most liberal Senate Republican and who already has been rejected by Republicans in the primary, might lose her sore-loser write-in candidacy.
Arkansas incumbent Blanche Lincoln is behind by 20 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Wisconsin incumbent Russ Feingold is behind by an average of eight points. And Colorado incumbent Michael Bennet, appointed to the seat vacated when Ken Salazar became secretary of the interior, trails by a RealClearPolitics average of 4.3 percent.
So there could be at least 18 freshmen senators next January. And several other incumbents — all Democrats — could lose. Since popular election of senators became mandatory in 1913, the largest crop of freshmen, 20, resulted from the 1978 upheaval that presaged the 18 new senators produced by the 1980 election.
If senators in their first terms are a majority of the body in 2011, there might be an anomalous condition that would have perplexed and perhaps vexed the Founding Fathers: The average seniority of House members might be higher than the average seniority of senators.
The Senate, with indirect election of its members (by state legislatures) and six-year terms, was designed to be Congress’ more stable half. If there is a majority of first-term members in 2011, many new members will have won by expressing disgust with Washington’s mores. This will challenge even the formidable leadership skills of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
After November, Republican eyes will turn to the prize of the presidency in 2012. Concerning which, McConnell sees cautionary lessons from three other years — 1946, 1954 and 1994.
In 1946, President Truman’s party lost control of both the House and Senate. In 1948, however, Truman won an improbable re-election running against the “do-nothing 80th Congress.” In 1954, President Eisenhower’s party lost control of the House and Senate. But two years later, Eisenhower was resoundingly re-elected. In 1994, President Clinton’s party lost control of the House and Senate. In 1996, Clinton cruised to re-election, partly because of reckless behavior — e.g., the government shutdown of 1995 — by congressional Republicans.
Regarding House races, Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard notes that the Democratic Party has “an inefficiently distributed base of voters.” It “consists mostly of union workers, upscale urban liberals, and minority voters, many of whom are clustered in highly Democratic districts.” In many other districts, Democratic candidates depend on “independents and soft partisans,” the very voters who have defected from the Obama coalition of 2008.
If Democrats lose control of the House by a small number of seats, this might be condign punishment for a practice they favor and that Republicans have cynically encouraged — racial gerrymandering. It concentrates African-American voters in majority-minority districts in order to guarantee the election of minority candidates.
On Nov. 2, there will be 37 gubernatorial elections. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, when the 15-month dash to the Iowa caucuses begins, Republicans may be savoring gains of eight or more governors, to a total of at least 31. They also may have gained 500 seats in state legislatures, mostly by retaking seats lost in the last two elections. This would expand Republican power over the redistricting that will be based on the 2010 census. Polidata Inc. estimates that states carried in 2008 by John McCain will gain a net of seven seats (and electoral votes) and states Barack Obama carried will lose seven.
Finally, Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, reports that this year, for the first time since 1930, more Republicans — nearly 4 million more — than Democrats voted in midterm primaries. This “enthusiasm gap” favoring Republicans may close somewhat by Nov. 2, but that may be too late for many Democratic candidates:
Voting began in seven states in September. By Nov. 2, almost 40 percent of all ballots will have been cast.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. firstname.lastname@example.org