By BYRON YORK
When asked about their prospects for 2014, most Republicans will say that whatever happens with the Senate, the GOP is a virtual lock to keep control of the House. The House majority is the GOP’s single hold on power in Washington, and the only way the party has been able to shape national policy during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Republicans haven’t worried about losing the House because, first, having won by a landslide in 2010, they got to control the redistricting process, and they have used that power to draw districts that give them an advantage. Second, Barack Obama, having won re-election, is not particularly popular, and his ratings could slip further by November 2014. And third, history teaches that the presidential party just doesn’t gain seats in the mid-terms of a president’s second term. So, the thinking goes, Obama’s Democrats can’t win. The House will stay Republican.
Unless it doesn’t. Behind the scenes — in whispered asides, not for public consumption — some Republicans are now worried that keeping the House is not such a done deal after all. They look back to two elections, 1998 and 2006, in which Republicans seriously underperformed expectations, and they wonder if 2014 might be a little like those two unhappy years.
“The majority is at risk,” says one well-connected Republican strategist. “It should be a good year, but you need to run like you’re trying to win, and you need a good, solid strategy.”
In 1998, Republicans, with a narrow majority in the House, expected to pick up at least 20 seats. It was a weird year, with the Lewinsky scandal consuming Bill Clinton’s presidency. But Clinton wasn’t on the ballot — a fact that didn’t stop House Republicans from campaigning against him. “We were going to make the race all about Bill Clinton,” the strategist recalls.
It didn’t work. Instead of picking up 20 seats, the GOP lost five. (So much for the president’s party never picking up seats in the second term.) Republicans kept control of the House, but by a margin so small it made governing difficult.
In 2006, another president was in his second term, this time Republican George W. Bush. The GOP controlled the House and saw itself heading toward another victory. “The whole focus was on attacking Democrats,” recalls the strategist. “There was the belief that the districts were structurally Republican, Bush had carried a number of them, and we had a financial advantage.”
But instead of cruising to a win, the GOP lost 30 seats and ushered in the era of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In both years, ’98 and ’06, Republicans concentrated more on going after Democrats than on laying out a solid plan for governance. They were the opposition party more than the alternative party. And they suffered for it.
What is the GOP plan for 2014? It’s not clear. But there are indications some Republicans believe that, with a weakening president, a strategy based mostly on opposing Democrats will be enough to keep control of the House. But voters are sending some warning signals.
They’re still not happy with the economy. How could they be, with unemployment at 7.4 percent? Whatever Barack Obama does, whatever Republicans do, unless something huge happens, the public’s top issue will remain the economy for quite a while.
GOP strategists look at the president’s job approval rating on the economy and see an opportunity. A recent Quinnipiac poll, for example, found that 54 percent of those surveyed do not approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. Yet when the pollsters asked who respondents trusted to do a better job with economic issues — Obama or Republicans in Congress — respondents chose Obama, 45 percent to 39 percent.
Lots of other polls have shown similar results. Voters don’t approve of the way Obama is handling the economy. Yet they prefer him over Republicans.
What that should tell the GOP is that Republican candidates don’t need to tell voters what a bad job the president is doing. They already know that, and besides, Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2014. What GOP candidates need to do is convince voters that they would do a better job than Democrats.
If they don’t — if Republicans stick to being an opposition party on the attack rather than the alternative party offering an agenda — then Obama’s much-discussed dream of retaking the House in 2014 might come true, despite all the odds. And that would be a nightmare for Republicans.
Byron York, the Washington Examiner’s chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday on washingtonexaminer.com.