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GOP must capitalize on 'six year itch'

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By Charlie Cook
Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
 

It's hard to pick up any publication or watch any television program oriented toward politics and not be reminded of the problems facing the Republican Party. The GOP has lost the popular vote for president in five of the past six presidential elections.

The last time the GOP won 300 electoral votes was in 1988; Democrats have won 300 or more in four of the past six contests.

In two consecutive elections, the closest Senate races have fallen domino-like toward Democrats. In 2010, they won five of the seven races rated as tossups by The Cook Political Report; this year, Democrats prevailed in eight out of 10. While Republicans held onto their House majority, they lost eight seats, about a third of their 25-seat margin.

The point of all this is not to pile on Republicans but to set up an argument that some factors could, or at least should, work to their benefit if they quickly get through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and begin to deal with their problems.

The upcoming 2014 vote is what's known as a “six-year itch” election, with the party holding the White House usually losing a substantial number of House and Senate seats in the sixth year of its tenure. There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party's second four years in the White House, the “in” party tends to lose energy and focus.

In the six “six-year itch” elections since World War II, the party in the White House has averaged a 29-seat loss in the House and a six-seat (actually 5.6) loss in the Senate. Obviously, past results are not a guarantee of future performance.

And with the way the current lines are drawn to form so many one-party districts, it would take a heckuva wave election to move a lot of seats in either direction. The House appears to have reached a kind of a partisan equilibrium; the GOP has a good chance of holding onto control for the rest of the decade, barring self-destruction resulting in a tidal wave.

But in the Senate, with only one Republican-held seat up (Susan Collins in Maine) in a state not carried by Mitt Romney by at least 8 points, the GOP seems to have little exposure. At the same time, Democrats have four seats in states that Romney carried by 15 or more points, with two more in states that Romney won by 14 points and two others in swing states.

But overexposure doesn't necessarily mean that Democrats will lose seats. This year, Democrats had 23 seats up to only 10 for Republicans, yet Democrats managed to score a net gain of two seats, defying all odds.

At least on paper, 2014 should be an opportunity year for Senate Republicans, assuming they don't nominate horrifically flawed, weak or self-immolating candidates.

In the next presidential election, Democrats will have held the White House for two consecutive terms; only once in the post-World War II period (1988) has a party won the presidency three times in a row.

Thus, if Republicans get their act together and address the challenges that were so clearly seen last month, they should be in a position in 2014 to record strong Senate gains and to hold onto their House majority. They could even win the presidency in 2016.

Charlie Cook is a columnist for National Journal.

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