Democrats ‘are in a bad way’ for 2004 elections; liberal and moderate wings of party may duke it out

While most 2004 campaign coverage remains fixated on the wild and crazy race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the 2004 election also promises to be especially challenging for Democrats seeking seats in the House and Senate. The Democrats are in for a fight in 2004, and the liberal and more moderate factions of the party may likely be their own worst enemy if they engage in a political and philosophical battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

“The Democrats are in a bad way in 2004,” said Steven S. Smith, Ph.D., an authority on congressional politics and the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the Senate races, the Democrats have 19 seats that they currently control that are up for grabs whereas the Senate Republicans only have to defend 15. So the prospects of the Democrats recovering their majority status are not good. The odds are against them. They simply have to defend more seats and some of these seats are Western states that are not easy to defend on the part of Democrats,” said Smith.

Campaign 2004 will be a rough and tumble, says Steven S. Smith, Ph.D.
Campaign 2004 will be a rough and tumble, says Steven S. Smith, Ph.D.

“House redistricting greatly aided incumbents in general in 2002. It will continue to do so. So this means that the Republican advantage in redistricting doesn’t disappear. It will continue to advantage the Republicans. So retaking the House on the part of the Democrats will also be very difficult and reasonably easy for the Republicans to defend.”

Although the 2004 elections are still a year away, some of the biggest political hurdles facing the Democrats can be traced to their dismal showing in the mid-term elections of 2002, said Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University.

In mid-term elections held since 1950, Smith notes, the political party not in control of the White House — “the out party” — has gained an average of 24 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. In 2002, the Republicans dramatically reversed that trend, picking up four seats in the House and two in the Senate.

“This was only the third time since 1902 that the president’s party managed to gain seats in a mid-term election,” Smith said. “The other two were 1934 and 1998 – Clinton’s second term. So this was very unusual and obviously the Republicans rightly take great pride in countering these historical trends.”

Now, with majorities in both the House and the Senate, more Republicans are poised to reap the benefits of incumbency in 2004.

“The simple fact is that it is difficult to beat incumbents,” Smith said. “This means that even the president’s own incumbents are difficult to dislodge once they’re in office. So the election-to-election swings in control of the various seats around the country are dampening considerably — we’re not seeing big shifts, pro-president and then against the president — whether it’s a Democratic or Republican president. We’re seeing incumbents holding these seats very effectively.”

What accounts for the Republican Party’s sweeping successes in the 2002 mid-term elections and what are the ramifications for 2004 races?

One explanation is that the Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders shrewdly managed the public agenda, continually finding ways to keep the American public focused on the looming war with Iraq.

“The war on terrorism and the possible war against Iraq meant that it was impossible for the Democrats to break through and get public attention for their issues — corporate corruption, social security, health care and so on,” Smith said.

While Republican strategists exploited America’s preoccupation with the war to great advantage in 2002, they may not have that opportunity in 2004.

“The Democratic race has heated up with the entry of Gen. Wesley Clark,” Smith said. “Clark, in the view of many Democrats, promises to neutralize or even overcome the president’s advantage on the issue of national security. He threatens to steal votes from Sen. John Kerry, who has received some support because of his war record.

“Clark’s task is to demonstrate that he can articulate a vision on the economy, where the president is still considered vulnerable. His ability to deal with domestic issues will be critical to his success in attracting votes in primaries where appeals to the traditional Democratic groups — unions, women, environmentalists, African Americans, and so on.”

Ultimately, the success or failure of both Democratic and Republican candidates in 2004 may hinge on Bush’s ability to handle the chaos of postwar Iraq and the cost of America’s ongoing war on terrorism. The 2004 elections could become a referendum on the new role for America in world affairs that has been asserted by the Bush administration.

Both parties have plenty at stake.

“Republicans hope to solidify their position as the dominant party in the national arena by expanding the size of the president’s electoral coalition,” Smith said. “Democrats may be forced to choose between those seeking to redefine the party in the middle of the political spectrum and those insisting that the party return to a stronger liberal vision.”