A First Look at 2006 – Will There Be Changes in Congress?

by Tony Quinn
Aug. 11, 2005
Who cares about the 2nd Congressional District of Ohio? Nobody, probably, except the people who live there, and most of them don’t care. But political junkies are looking very closely at the 2nd Ohio district for clues to the election of 2006. That’s because this district just had a special congressional election, and the Republican candidate won narrowly, 52 to 48 percent.

That’s news only because this is among the most Republican districts in Ohio, running from the Cincinnati suburbs along the Kentucky border, and combining the twin strengths of the modern Republican Party, suburban voters and southern-looking rural areas. George Bush carried this district in 2004 with 64 percent of the vote.

One sparrow does not a summer make, but Republicans have had a patch of bad luck lately. The Iraq war, officially over two years ago, still sputters on, and Bush is paying a price, as confidence in his war leadership wanes. Democrats have been on the offensive of late, generally opposing things, but mining a vein of public disenchantment with the Republicans. It seems to be a race to the bottom to see who is the most unpopular Republican in California, Gov. Schwarzenegger or President Bush.

Yet in 2006 it is hard to see much change in the California legislature, and the statewide offices very much depend on Schwarzenegger’s popularity, and whether he runs again. But there are some faint signs that the state’s congressional delegation could see some competitive races next year – and that’s not expected given the heavy gerrymandering of the congressional districts in 2001.

The congressional delegation was “Berlin walled” by in the 2001 redistricting to make 33 safe Democratic seats and 20 safe Republican ones. This gerrymander has held up through two election cycles, with no shift between the parties.

Right now, Democrats need a net national gain of 15 seats to take control of the House of Representatives. If the Democrats smell blood in 2006, they will try to win at least one of these 15 districts right here in California. That would be a big step toward making Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco the nation’s first woman House Speaker, and the most liberal House Speaker in history.

In 2004, forty-two House districts throughout the country were won by 55 percent of the vote or less. This is where the battle of the House will occur in 2006. Two of those districts are in California. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) won with 53 percent of the vote, but he was running for the first time and is unlikely to face a challenge in 2006. Costa is a relatively conservative Central Valley Democrat.

The other close race involved 24-year GOP incumbent Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). This was a race that should not have been close. Dreier is chair of the House Rules Committee, and important member of the House leadership.

In 2004, Dreier came under attack from right-wing radio talk shows in Southern California for his support for Bush’s immigration policies. More importantly though, his district in the northern Los Angeles suburbs and parts of San Bernardino County shows a long term trend to the Democrats, not much a trend, but enough to make this seat possibly competitive in 2006. In 2004, Bush only carried the district with 55 percent of the vote and Dreier received 54 percent, even though the seat covers historically Republican suburbs.

Of course the Democrats need to come up with a candidate who can appeal to this suburban constituency, and that has been one of their problems. A lot is written about how conservative the Republican Party has become, but the party that’s in ideological lockstep is the Democratic Party. There is no diversity of opinion on issues such as abortion rights, and even gay marriage, among leading Democrats. They are out of step with a large swath of American voters on both economic and social matters, and even a lot of voters in California.

But in 2006 Democrats will be able to showcase California’s most popular politician, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein who will be running for re-election. If they can avoid nominating State Treasurer Phil Angelides for governor, they might be able to present a ticket that’s not a captive of the public employee union and not dedicated to raising everyone’s taxes.

That is a big order, because as the Democratic Party has gotten smaller, both in terms of party registration and elected officials (especially nationwide), it has also become more militantly liberal.

To defeat Dreier next year, the Democrats will need a real moderate, someone in the Feinstein mold. Whether they can find such a person in this suburban Los Angeles district, and numerous similar districts across the country, will tell us a lot about whether the Democrats can ever remake themselves into a national majority.

Feature archive