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THE BROKEN ARC

11:00 PM, Nov 24, 1996 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Republicans are in a pretty good mood these days in spite of Bob Dole's loss. Their party successfully preserved its majority in Congress despite an expensive and wildly deceptive Democratic onslaught against Newt Gingrich, Republican freshmen, and GOP efforts on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.


Conservative Republicans are especially pleased with the way the election has led to what the Christian Coalition's political director has called " philosophical upgrades" in Congress. Take the Senate. Retiring GOP moderates Mark Hatfield and Alan Simpson were replaced by the more conservative Gordon Smith and Mike Enzi. And "conservative" is the word to describe the three Republicans who picked up Senate seats formerly held by Democrats. Moreover, the one Democrat who unseated a Republican -- prochoice Republican Larry Pressler in South Dakota, to be exact -- is pro-life. In the House, the Republican membership has taken on a slightly more conservative cast. While moderate Republicans lost seats, rightwing Republicans increased in number.


The GOP is smacking its lips in anticipation of the next congressional elections in 1998. That will be Clinton's sixth year in office. History shows that the party controlling the White House gets eviscerated in the congressional races held during a president's sixth year. Could Republicans end up after Election Day 1998 with 60 seats in the Senate (the magic number that makes it impossible for Democrats to filibuster GOP legislation)? Perhaps 30 more House seats? It's not out of the question. Huzzah!


Republicans have every right to feel happy with the way the party survived in the House and increased its majority in the Senate. But before the triumphalism gets entirely out of hand, we ought to take a long, hard look at the contours of the 1996 results, especially for the House. What's there ought to give real pause.


It's worth remembering that a year ago, Republicans seemed to have everything going for them. Many more Democrats were deciding to retire from Congress than Republicans (it's no fun being in the minority). This, in turn, gave the GOP a real chance to pick up seats in 1996. Why? Because it's always easier to win an open seat than to beat an incumbent -- especially when many of the seats vacated by Democrats were in districts that had shown Republican tendencies in past presidential elections. By contrast, retiring Republicans mostly served in reliably Republican districts, making it especially difficult for Democrats to win these vacancies.


Republicans did indeed do well in the open Democratic seats -- they won ten, while the Democrats won only three. But Democrats did something much harder: They beat incumbents. Democrats knocked out 18 sitting Republican members, compared to three such victories in the GOP.


That is not good news for Republicans, and the news gets worse. For if GOP losses had been scattered uniformly across the nation, there wouldn't be anything that remarkable about the 1996 outcome. But the losses weren't scattered. Instead, they followed a fascinating, and worrisome, pattern -- a pattern that looked like a broken arc.


There were two separate elections in 1996. Election #1 took place in the South, the Great Plains, and the West. The GOP won it decisively. The Republican party held all but three of its incumbents and picked up 13 seats previously held by Democrats. (The Democrats took one seat in Louisiana and two in North Carolina.)


Election #2 took place in a long, continent-wide curve -- a broken arc. The arc went from California up the west coast, where it broke off. It resumed in the northern plains and went from there to the Rust Belt, then to the Northeast, and finally down to the mid-Atlantic. The Democrats won Election #2 decisively: They picked up 22 seats formerly held by Republicans, thus wiping out about one-tenth of the GOP holdings in the 104th Congress. The only Republican pickup in the arc was a lone House seat in Illinois -- the seat vacated by Dick Durbin, who ran for the Senate and won. The Republican gains in Election # 1 offset the party's losses in Election #2 enough to retain a majority in the House. But the losses in Election #2 are geographically ominous ones.


So were the results in the close races -- those won by a margin of six percentage points or less. Any incumbent who wins so narrowly becomes a tempting target in the next election. Nationwide, only seven Democratic incumbents found themselves in close races. That's compared with 37 Republicans. Nineteen of those Republicans won -- and 14 of them were in the broken arc. Given how inhospitable the broken arc was to Republicans in this election, every one of those 14 reelected incumbents may find himself in trouble come 1998.