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A Majority—If You Can Keep It

Lessons for John Boehner from Congresses past.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By JAY COST
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The 112th House of Representatives, which convened for the first time last week, is in many respects a historic one. The Republican majority of 242 representatives is larger than any the party enjoyed from 1994 to 2006. Of course, the Republican Revolution of 1994 broke 40 years of Democratic control of the House, but even the GOP’s brief majority of 1952-54, built on Dwight Eisenhower’s coattails, reached just 221 seats. One has to go all the way back to 1946 to find a Republican House majority larger than the current one. In that famed 80th Congress, the GOP held 245 House seats.

A Majority—If You Can Keep It

Gary Locke

Given how closely matched they are in terms of partisan strength, one might even be inclined to compare the new House with that of 1946. Upon closer examination, however, one will notice many important distinctions between the Republican majority of 1946 and that of 2010. Appreciating these differences can help illuminate the nature of the Republican party in the 21st century, and clarify the goals for the GOP in this new Congress.

Prior to the Great Depression, party loyalties in the United States were largely sectional. Sixty years after the end of the Civil War, Americans still basically voted the way they’d shot​—​the North backing Republicans, the South backing Democrats, and the West usually toggling between the two great parties. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed northern party alignments into a class-based divide, which left the Republicans at a distinct disadvantage, as working class northerners bolted the Grand Old Party. FDR’s successful coalition reduced Republicans to the party of the Yankee middle class in the Northeast and the small towns of the Midwest​—​far short of a majority.

Roosevelt’s death in 1945, combined with the difficulties of converting from a wartime to a peacetime economy, finally gave the GOP an opening. The results in the 1946 midterms looked like a reversion to the pre-Depression balance of power: Republicans won nearly 75 percent of congressional districts outside the old Confederacy, including many working class enclaves in the big cities. The entire House delegation from Philadelphia, for instance, went Republican, which it had not done since the 1930s.

Unfortunately for the GOP, the New Deal political alignment would not be so easily undone, and the Republican majority of 1946 proved short-lived. Harry Truman’s political advisers astutely urged him to run a campaign in 1948 that would exploit the class cleavages of the New Deal, and thus remind old FDR voters why they had backed the Democrats for so long. The Democrats won 263 House seats, a stunning reversal.

The Republican gains in 2010 do not appear to be nearly as flukish. The GOP surge depended on the consolidation of the Bush vote; districts that had been splitting their ballots​—​voting for Republican presidents and Democratic congressmen​—​stopped doing so in 2010. Thus, most Republican gains last year came in areas where the party has been strong for some time. In the 66 districts the GOP won from the Democrats, George W. Bush carried on average 55 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. Even John McCain carried an average of 51 percent of the vote in those same districts in 2008. This suggests that, unlike in 1946, the GOP sweep in 2010 will have staying power, even if President Obama should be reelected. To hold their majority in 2012, House Republicans will basically have to defend their home turf.

Another crucial difference between the majorities of 1946 and 2010 is the kind of electorate the latter is built on, a distinction that becomes evident when we consider the new speaker of the House, John Boehner. At first blush, one might be inclined to see him as a throwback to the old Republican party. After all, here is a conservative who hails from the Cincinnati area and who has mastered the legislative process. That description conjures up the memory of the great Republican leader of the 1930s and 1940s, Ohio senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” as he was known.

Yet Boehner’s home is actually in Butler County​—​just north of Cincinnati. The city itself was long a Republican bastion, but neighboring Butler had a decidedly Democratic tilt until the 1950s. Population growth driven by the rise of the postwar suburbs swung it to the GOP, which it has consistently supported for president since 1968. For much of the rest of the GOP House leadership, the story of their home districts is the same. Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Sessions, Tom Price, and John Carter all come from the South, a region where congressional Democrats dominated until the 1994 midterms, while Vice Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers comes from Speaker Tom Foley’s old district in Washington. Of the GOP leadership team, just two members​—​Peter Roskam of Illinois and Kevin McCarthy of California​—​have electorates with long memories of supporting Republicans.

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