Posted on June 08, 1998 in Washington Watch

Republican congressional leader Newt Gingrich’s recent behavior must be understood as part of his party’s strategic approach to the upcoming 1998 congressional elections.

This November’s elections are critical to both political parties. Republicans are seeking to retain their slim control over the Congress, while Democrats are eager to end four years of Republican domination.

As in all even year national elections, this November all 435 congressional seats and 1/3 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats will be contested.

Presently Republicans control both the House and the Senate. In the Senate they have a 55 to 45 edge over the Democrats, while in the House of Representatives the Republican majority is only 226 to 207 (with one additional independent who votes with the Democrats, and one vacancy that will be filled in a hotly contested special election on June 23).

While a shift of any five seats from Republican to Democrat will give Democrats control over the U.S. Senate (since Vice President Gore, a Democrat presides over that body and would cast a deciding vote in his party’s favor), analysts agree that this outcome is highly unlikely.

Of the 34 Senate seats that will be decided in November, it appears that Republicans are certain to win in 10 of them. Democrats are also certain to win in 10. Of the remaining 14 that are, at present, too close to call, nine of them are presently held by Democrats, while only five are Republicans. This would mean that in order to take control of the Senate, Democrats would have to win all 14 of these races–a virtual impossibility.

On the House side the picture is slightly different. In order to gain control of the Congress, Democrats need only to win 10 seats from the Republicans. This is the smallest margin of control that either party has had in the House in recent years.

Analysts currently see at least 368 of this years’ 435 races remaining in their respective parities’ control (i.e. 191 Republicans and 175 Democrats). Of the remaining 67 seats that are currently being viewed as competitive, 35 are Republican and 32 are Democrats. In order to win back control of the Congress, Democrats would have to win at least 42 of these competitive 67 races–a difficult, but possible scenario.

While local issues will, of course, be important, since all of these 435 elections take place in separate districts around the United States, there are “macro” issues that will be important as well. At present, voters are feeling quite good about the economy, the direction of the country and the performance of the both the President and the Congress. Such a positive mood usually leads voters to reelect their current representatives. Recall that in 1994, when the Republicans regained control of the Congress with a landslide over the Democrats, the nation’s mood was quite sour. The President’s ratings were at an all-time low and voter confidence in the performance of the Congress was also low.

But there are other issues that will also play a role in the November 1998 elections. And it is in this context that Speaker Gingrich’s behavior must be understood.

Historically, voter turnout is low in U.S. elections. During the four-year cycle, when the presidential elections take place, only about 50 percent of those registered to vote actually do so. During the off year elections, when only the congressional races occur (and 1998 is an off year), the voter levels are an even lower 35 percent. Given this fact, it becomes imperative for both parties to encourage their strongest support groups to vote.

During the first few months of this year, Republicans had been keeping somewhat of a low profile in Washington. They had found that their strident confrontational approach in dealing with President Clinton was costing them popularity. Thus, despite the President’s many problems, the more Republican’s attacked him, the higher Clinton’s approval ratings rose and the lower the Republicans’ ratings fell.

The shift to a “kinder and gentler’ Republican approach, in fact, did improve the party’s standing. Even Gingrich himself personally benefited from this tactic. The release of his new book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, and his cross-country tour to promote the book was designed to recast the Speaker’s image. Gone was the attacking, acerbic Gingrich and in came the humble and contrite Gingrich. While the Speaker’s ratings began to rise in response to his new image, polling data apparently began to tell the Republican leadership something else.

In order to win in 1998, Republicans had to attract their most fervent and loyal supporters. Given the expected low turnout, neither party could afford to sacrifice their base of support. The “kind and gentle” approach might have been working to create a better feeling among moderates, but it was risky in that it was causing alienation among the hard right core of the Republican party’s activists. Religious conservatives, neo-conservative hawks and partisan Republicans wanted none of this new approach. They wanted Clinton to be attacked and they wanted their right wing religious agenda pushed through Congress. And so, in a matter of days, Gingrich came off the book tour, landed in Washington and reverted to his old form. He called the President a “lawbreaker,” denounced Clinton and White House aides for “obstruction of justice” and “unpatriotic” behavior and hinted that the House might take steps to consider impeachment proceedings against the President.

Gingrich’s attacks on First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Albright over their stands on the Middle East are also part of the same strategy. While Jewish Americans vote heavily Democratic, pro-Israel PAC money goes to the party in power. At present, it appears that over two-thirds of the pro-Israel PAC dollars in 1998 will go to Republican candidates. The Speaker wants to secure this level of giving. His bitter anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel stands will also play well with the religious right voters in his party.

So while the Speaker’s performance in the United States and the Middle East has been a diplomatic disaster and a personal embarrassment (it has hurt his personal standing) it is being viewed as a short-run loss in order to secure the long-term gain of retaining Republican control of the House in 1998. The strategy is risky but the stakes are high for Gingrich. If Republicans lose control of the House, he is no longer Speaker and Republicans will no longer control the chairmanships of all the congressional committees giving them the power to set the agenda for the work of the legislature.

The tactic may backfire, however. If Gingrich returns to his old record levels of unpopularity he will be an easy target for Democrats to campaign against. And if the Republicans spend all their efforts attacking the President, but cannot make a winning case to impeach him, they may only serve to alienate their base of support and energize Democratic voters to turn out in the fall.

A further danger is that Republicans may end up being defined as the angry party that attacks the President, but has no popular agenda. This will be costly to them and will allow Democrats to define a pro-active agenda on which to campaign.

In any case, it’s all politics between now and November 1998.

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