The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Republican congressional campaign committees plan to spend "more than 90%" of its funds on negative attacks on Democratic challengers based on local issues and scandals.
I’ve seen two reactions to this. First, the suggestion that it contradicts Republican threats to nationalize the election around security. And, second, that it’s more or less business as usual, because the party in power always wants to treat elections as local fights between individual incumbents and challengers, while the party out of power always wants to use a national tide to give its challengers a boost.
Neither response recognizes quite how unusual this is. And the article doesn’t quite say it either.
The article is missing a key phrase. Cosider the conventional wisdom that the party in control of Congress wants to keep the focus on local races. Usually, the saying goes, it’s because "People hate Congress but they like their own congressman." But the article tells a very different story.
If you take a basic course on congressional politics, you’ll be taught that there are two possible rhythms to a congressional election. In most elections, the national trend, whatever it is, doesn’t quite cross over into local races, and 98% of incumbents are reelected. In 1988, for example, George H.W. Bush won a solid victory but Democrats actually gained two seats in the House.
But every so often, the national trend is so strong that it breaks the back of incumbents who have held on to their districts for years through the usual incumbent advantages: name recognition, constituent service, delivering pork, an advantage in campaign money. 1994 was such a year.
Those advantages of incumbency are typically positive advantages. But not only is the national trend this year strong enough to overwhelm them, most of the natural positive advantages of incumbency aren’t there for Republicans. They can’t count on Americans liking their own congressman, because people don’t like their congressmen. They can’t count on ribbon-cutting ceremonies and pork-barrel spending because large forces have been unleashed that make those things look -- as they are -- trivial. (The ultimate irony of big-government conservatism is that it may have no political payoff.) And they can no longer count on the basic fundraising advantage that incumbents have. And that will get worse as the K Street Project turns on itself. (An acquaintance who runs a sizable trade association PAC told me the other day that their giving up to now had been 70:30 Republican, and her job between now and November was to get it to 50:50, so that they’re not shut out in the next Congress.)
Without the usual local advantages of incumbency, the Republicans’ second choice is to nationalize the election themselves, as the incumbent party, making it a referendum on the Bush-defined "War on Terror." That’s an unusual move, but to some extent it’s what they did to win the 2002 elections. And certainly until the Post article, this is what they promised. But it’s getting old.
And the Post article is an indication that, at least from the point of view of those following congressional races most closely, it’s not working. And so, time for Plan C. There’s nothing new about negative campaigning in congressional races, of course, and nothing per se wrong with it. But if your opponent is unknown and underfunded, and you are a well-liked incumbent, the last thing you want to do is even mention your opponent. You don’t debate, you don’t do anything that brings the challenger into the same zone. And so a systematic negative campaign by incumbents against challengers, across the board, is highly unusual. But it may be the only option available.
And it may well work, at least in just enough congressional districts to avoid a Democratic takeover of the House or at least keep it vanishingly close. The strategy of aggressively disqualifying a challenger before the race even begins, defining the challenger before she can define herself, worked against Kerry and its worked in some Senate races. I wouldn’t write it off. But have no doubt -- it is the strategy of a party and a movement that is on its last legs.