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Why November 2002 looks great

By Bruce Walker
web posted January 14, 2002

Conservatives are by nature practical, cautious, and conscious of history. It is no great surprise, then, that so many conservatives fret about the November 2002 mid-term elections. Traditionally the party that controls the White House loses seats in mid-term elections, and both houses of Congress are very closely balanced now. Traditionally the president's party does poorly in times when the economy is not doing well, and voters will not feel the recovery until mid-2002. Traditionally the high public approval rating that presidents enjoy in times of national crisis melt within a few months.

Throw onto the bonfires of despair the defection of Jim Jeffords to a nominally independent party label that gives practical control of the Senate to Democrats and gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey, and some of my conservative friends seem ready to sit in a warm Roman bath and open a vein. The cause for hope is much greater than the cause for worry - for several important reasons.

Republicans have had no unexpected electoral reverses since President Bush took office. Polls foretold Democrat gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, and the ripple effect in the New Jersey legislative races was equally predictable. There have been a number of elections since President Bush took office, and in every single House and Senate race that Republicans were supposed to win, they won. There have been two upsets, the Congressional special election in Virginia and the New York mayoral race, and in both elections it was the Republican candidate who unexpectedly defeated the Democrat. While Republicans do, indeed, have a narrow edge in the House of Representatives, they have gained one more seat through electoral victory in 2001, and they did not lose a single seat in the 2000 Presidential election.

Moreover, the "below the radar" elections in state legislative or secondary state races that Republicans have won have come in key locations. Republicans won a state legislative seat in Minnesota that had been Democrat for thirty years. Republicans not only won the State Supreme Court in Pennsylvania, but a host of local elections in traditionally Democrat areas. Republicans also captured a state legislative seat in Missouri that had long been Democrat.

Unlike the period from late November 1992 and through mid-1994, when Democrats were unexpectedly losing elections for offices that they held, there is no trend at all that shows Republicans in trouble. They have gained control of the Missouri State Senate, actually added a Congressional seat through election, and held onto Gracie Mansion against what seemed impossible odds. The only election of 2002 - a special election to fill Steve Largent's congressional seat in Tulsa, Oklahoma - was won by the Republican candidate.

The mid-term shibboleth is gone (or should be) by now. The Republican landslide the first mid-term of the Clinton Reign was contrary to conventional political wisdom, and the Democrat's modest gains in 1998 utterly discordant with history. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton have succeeded in nationalizing congressional elections, which is very good news for conservatives. Candidates running in 2002 will be compelled by recent electoral history to run "for" or "against" President Bush.

Democrats will find running "beside" the President a sort of pathetic copycat Republicanism that will demoralize their base while failing to persuade many independents. And pity the mass of Democrats who will have to somehow, someway, run "against" President Bush.

Note how pundits are cautiously hedging their bets that his popularity will wane quickly in the summer heat? The tragedy of September 11 did not make George W. Bush a popular figure in America. He and Dwight Eisenhower have the special distinction of being the only two presidents in the last 100 years who were extraordinarily popular men before they won election to the White House.

George W. BushThe personal popularity of George W. Bush did not begin in January 2001 but in May 1998 - a full two and half years before the Presidential Election - and in every single poll, the American people have shown an exceptional fondness for Bush, the man. This likeability is quite understandable, and it is very potent politically. Eisenhower ran on the simple campaign "I like Ike" and it worked very, very well.

President Bush is not only well liked himself, but he has surrounded himself with people equally likeable. Don Rumsfeld has become beloved as a tough talking John Wayne. Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, and Lynne Cheney are so obviously decent and benign that Democrats simply do not waste their ammo shooting at these manifestly good people. Colin Powell was almost an Eisenhower himself, a popular general in a victorious war. Even Rudy Giuliani has become a deeply admired public servant.

President Bush was also considered to be doing a pretty darn good job as President prior to September 11. The nation especially appreciated his reaching out to Democrats (it doesn't matter how they react, it is the reaching out people see) and his conspicuous efforts to form bipartisan policies (again, it doesn't matter what Democrats do, it is what people see the President doing). His job approval ratings rose after September 11, but they rose from levels that were already high.

Moreover, his numbers simply have not fallen. The Desert Storm poll numbers dropped fifteen points in two months. Although the poll numbers vary slightly from one polling organization to another, the latest CBS/New York Times poll shows that in the four months since September 11, President Bush's approval ratings have not dropped a single point.

The weak links in his presidency were: (1) legitimacy, and (2) foreign affairs. These do not just look like silly complaints by Democrats now, they look like silly and nasty complaints by Democrats. Liberals are virtually compelled by public opinion now to concede that President Bush is a strong leader who can steer the nation through the shoals of dangerous days.

This combination of likeability and leadership, along with the sorry legacy of Clinton, make it counter-productive to try to rake up much muck either. The party of Clinton, Condit, and Torrecelli just will not be able to persuade any otherwise persuadable voters that they are morally equal (much less, morally superior) than Republicans.

If things are not so bad, then are things so good? Yes, they are. Democrats would like to demoralize conservatives by implying that Republican power in the reapportionment and redistricting process really doesn't matter much. Baloney.

The real story of how much it does matter was shown on the "bad night" for Republicans, November 6, 2001. Republican control of redistricting, which had always been controlled by Democrats, was worth 12% of the seats in the Virginia legislature. The impact was precisely what Republicans hoped and Democrats dreaded it would be. November 2002 will be the first general election in over forty years without the bulk of congressional districts crudely drawn to elect Democrats. In ten months we will all know how much that helps Republicans, but it is clear that it will help significantly.

The other dynamic which President Bush (and former Governor Bush) understands is that the vast majority of states are conservative. The Senate is natural territory for Republicans and conservatives. Even today - before President Bush has thrown his considerable skill (which thankfully conceited liberals always underestimate) behind it - Republicans look likely to pick up the one seat needed to pass control of the Senate.

Will Republicans gain more than one seat? Probably. Missouri, South Dakota, and Montana look particularly likely (Raciot as Chairman of the Republican National Committee gives him a strong incentive in his home state of Montana to pick that seat up from the President).

On top of that, Republicans almost certainly will pick up seats in state legislatures. Why? Because, as with congressional districts, Democrats have for many decades drawn state legislative districts to elect as many Democrats as possible. This will be the first election in a long time in which state legislative control is not heavily skewed towards Democrats.

Will Republicans lose some governors? Probably. A few. Massachusetts and Illinois, as well perhaps Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin. But Republicans may well win California, and they will very likely continue to hold New York, Florida, and Texas. A few big state Democrat governors may actually help Republicans by adding more "spice" to the Democrat nomination process in 2004.

The bottom line: Republicans will retake the Senate (Bush wants that, and anyone fool enough to see that he is a formidable opponent, are not paying attention) and probably increase the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The state government results will be mixed, as it always is, but Republicans - not Democrats - will be able to claim a more or less clean victory in early November 2002.

That is the best news: modest Republican victory in 2002, when Democrats are proclaiming their power, will make it exceedingly difficult to defeat President Bush for re-election in 2004. So count the months with hope, not dread. What Reagan began in 1980 and what Gingrich almost completed in 1994 will come to final victory in 2002. Watch. See. It will happen.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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