The Republican Party brand is "in the trash can." Its message: "stale." The political climate for GOP House lawmakers: "the worst since Watergate." House Republican Tom Davis of Virginia hammered out this bleak assessment on a rainy Sunday, May 11, from his home in Vienna, a Washington suburb. In a 20-page memo, he warned the GOP was "heading for losses bordering on another 20 seats in the House" in November.
Two days later, his party suffered its third consecutive loss since March in a special election for a House seat. The three seats—in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi—were longtime Republican turf, and each a pick-up for Democrats, who control the House, 236-199. Davis, 59, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, rode into Congress in the 1994 "Republican Revolution." He's retiring after this term. Davis, in an interview Wednesday, expressed no regrets about his memo. What frustrates him, in fact, is that warnings he delivered in private in January 2006 to then Speaker Dennis Hastert and NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds fell on deaf ears. "They thought I was exaggerating this stuff and that I was kind of a troublemaker," he says. "It was the war; it was Katrina; it was all these different things."
This time, Davis said he took his memo to Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoman who chairs the NRCC, on May 13, the day of the third, ill-fated special election in Mississippi. He revised it after the Mississippi results came in and gave it to Republican colleagues at a closed-door meeting the next morning. He said he's not surprised it leaked, nor is he bothered by that, reasoning it's better to face facts now than in October when elections approach.
"For the most part, people have been calling to get copies of the memo, and the feedback we've gotten, except from Karl Rove and people at the White House, is 'It's spot on, and OK, let's do something about it.' "
He quipped: "I don't hear from the White House, except Dick Cheney called and asked me to go hunting with him." Boehner, for his part, announced Wednesday that Davis, joined by House Republican Pat Tiberi of Ohio, would conduct an audit of what went wrong in the three special elections. They are to look at advertising, strategy, fundraising, and other issues.
Davis, in his memo, identified polling data to make his case. He cited President George W. Bush's sustained low approval ratings and a public preference for Democratic control of Congress, among other research. He noted that Democrats are winning at fundraising, too. Financial reports show the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised nearly $88 million to the Republican committee's $65 million; more startling is the gap in cash on hand, $44 million for the Democrats to $7 million for the GOP.
Davis included prescriptives for turning around Republican hopes in the fall. With oil above $130 a barrel, he urged Bush to send an emergency energy package to Congress "and dare them to act." Davis also implored his party to develop messages and to test and challenge Democrats on issues such as immigration and American competitiveness.
Davis, in the interview, said he's hopeful that John McCain "changes the face of the party," especially compared to Bush, since McCain "is competitive in most of the country and at least he's not radioactive." He had harsh words for Bush in the memo and interview. Davis, in the interview, said Bush "was sitting there in a fetal position" without acting on key issues, naming energy and the entitlement crisis that will hit Social Security and Medicare as baby boomers retire.
Still, Davis made plain in the interview that he doesn't regard McCain as a lifeboat. "I think McCain is going to look after McCain," he says, reminding that he chaired the NRCC for four years, including during the 2000 election, when there wasn't much Bush could do for House lawmakers.
With the election more than five months away, many analysts envision Democrats defying the historical trend and, even after a 30-seat gain in 2006, enlarging their majority. A sampling:
• A gain of six to 12 seats for Democrats, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. He envisions three or four Democratic freshmen losing their seats, but the party making strides elsewhere, especially in light of the 27 open GOP seats. Only eight seats are open on the Democratic side. "This is going to be a bad year for Republicans," Sabato says. "The question is: 'Is it going to be bad, awful, or absolutely horrible?' I'm cautious by nature; I'm keeping it at 'bad.' "
• A gain of eight to 12 seats, says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, another nonpartisan election-watcher. "The Republicans argue, 'Oh, well, Democrats control Congress and it will be an anti-incumbent year,'" he says. "That's not the way it works. The president's party, fairly or unfairly, is at much greater risk."
• A gain of 10 to 20 seats, says David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan publication, The Cook Political Report. "The Republican mantra is to 'stem losses' and a gain of any seats at all in November 2008 would be a surprise victory for the party."
At the NRCC, spokesman Ken Spain was guardedly optimistic—"We still believe we can pick up seats"—but acknowledged a "difficult political environment." He added: "Republicans need to be prepared for a tough election, whether they be incumbents or candidates running as challengers. They must be financially capable of running competitive races, and they must surround themselves with sound advisers and build strong grass-roots networks in order to effectively communicate with, energize, and turn out voters."
Spain declined to address boasts made only weeks ago: that the GOP could regain its House majority, which would now require a 19-seat gain. "We're playing to win," he would only say.
At the DCCC, chairman Chris Van Hollen, a House lawmaker from Maryland, won't divulge how many seats he expects to claim. There are too many uncertainties, he said, especially with respect to financial resources and the impact of the presidential contest. But Van Hollen, who derides the GOP as the "Party of No, Veto, and Status Quo," says his party is poised to beat history. A gain of one seat would prove him right. History shows that parties winning so-called wave elections, as his did with a win of 30 House seats in 2006, go on to lose seats two years later. One notable exception: Dems picked up a single seat in 1976 after massive wins two years earlier, thanks to President Richard Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.