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Democrats Couldn’t Defend Against Surge of Bush, GOP

The bottom line on the GOP’s dramatic gains in the 2002 elections could be deceptively simple. The clearest message from the results is this: In the places where President Bush is strong, he’s very strong.

That may sound obvious. But in fact it is the depth, more than the breadth, of Bush’s appeal that makes him such a formidable political figure. Above all, Tuesday’s outcome testified to the intensity of Bush’s support in the Republican coalition, which fueled the GOP breakthrough by surging to the polls in unexpectedly large numbers.

This election suggests that, at least for now, Bush is locking down virtually all of the culturally conservative areas of the country for the GOP -- a trend with implications for control of Congress and for the 2004 presidential race.

Bush’s achievement was historic; since the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 was the only other president to win House and Senate seats in his first midterm.

But the result didn’t spring from a Democratic collapse in the places where they have been strong lately. Instead, the Democrats failed in this election largely because they were unable to break into the places where Republicans have been strong. Indeed, in many of those Republican-leaning places, Democrats lost even more ground last week.

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It’s illuminating to look at Tuesday’s results through the prism of the razor-thin 2000 presidential race between Bush and Al Gore. That election divided the country almost exactly in half, between culturally conservative “red” states (for Bush) and more cosmopolitan “blue” states (for Gore).

By and large, Democrats on Tuesday held their own in Gore territory, especially the affluent, socially liberal, suburban counties outside the South that tilted from the GOP to the Democrats under President Clinton.

On Tuesday, Democrats suffered erosion in some of those places. But Democrat Jennifer Granholm still won Oakland County outside of Detroit en route to winning the Michigan governor’s race. In New Jersey, Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg ran up big margins in Passaic, Bergen and Middlesex counties along the way to his Senate win. And in Pennsylvania, Democrat Ed Rendell amassed crushing margins in Philadelphia suburbs, such as Delaware and Montgomery counties, as he cruised to the governorship.

But Democrats saw big losses in the places Bush is most popular: the red states, and the culturally conservative (red) parts of the blue states.

The stunning Republican upset in the Georgia governor’s race exemplifies the Democratic problem in the red states. It wasn’t that Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes under-performed in core Democratic areas: He produced a bigger margin in Atlanta than he did in his victory four years ago. Statewide, Barnes won only 9,000 fewer votes than he did in 1998.

But Barnes was buried under a Republican surge: The party’s candidate, Sonny Perdue, collected 248,000 more votes than the GOP nominee in 1998.

Perdue gained some ground in rural and small-town counties. But mostly he benefited from doubled or even quadrupled margins in the exurban counties surrounding Atlanta -- rapidly growing and culturally conservative communities on the crab-grass frontier between the countryside and the most distant suburbs.

Minnesota tells a similar blue-state story. Although slipping slightly from the 1996 performance of the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, Walter F. Mondale held Minneapolis, St. Paul and their immediate suburbs.

Mondale lost some ground in rural areas, but the decisive movement came in the ring of exurban counties outside the Twin Cities. In those counties -- which already had moved toward Bush in 2000, helping him almost carry the state -- Republican Norm Coleman amassed insurmountable margins. In 1996, Wellstone carried exurban Anoka and Dakota counties; on Tuesday, Coleman won them by 21,000 and 28,000 votes, respectively.

Even California wasn’t that different. Democrat Gov. Gray Davis was routed in the more culturally conservative inland -- from Sacramento and Fresno to San Bernardino and Riverside -- and was left clinging to a thin sliver of socially liberal coastal counties, like a man hanging on a ledge.

This all suggests that Republicans on Tuesday had enormous success at motivating voters already leaning their way, probably in large part because of Bush’s appeal. That outpouring dashed Democrats’ hopes of the red-state breakthroughs they desperately need in Congress.

All of the seven leading Democratic Senate challengers were running in red states; just Mark Pryor in Arkansas won. And while Democrats’ hopes of challenging for rural or Bush-leaning GOP House districts sputtered, the vast majority of Republican House gains came in districts Bush carried in 2000.

Of the 60 Senate seats in the states Bush won in 2000, Democrats will control just 18 or 19 in the new Congress (depending on whether Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu wins a Louisiana runoff next month). And when results in two yet-to-be-determined races are final, Democrats may face a 60-seat deficit among House seats in the red states.

Consider this: Republicans control no more House seats in the blue states now than they did before Tuesday’s vote. But in the reapportionment after the 2000 census, the red states gained seven House seats -- and on a net basis, the GOP will capture all of them this year if they win the last two seats under dispute.

In both chambers, Democrats will have to do better in the red areas to regain the majority. But Tuesday’s results say that won’t be easy anytime soon. Bush demonstrated he can translate his 90% approval rating with his base into votes. And the cultural differences dividing many red-state voters from the national Democratic Party remain profound.

These trends have presidential implications. Bush’s success Tuesday didn’t guarantee him reelection. But it underscored how difficult it will be to break his hold on almost any of the 30 states he won in 2000 -- and offered a road map for how he could mobilize culturally conservative voters to contest states that Gore carried, such as Minnesota and, maybe, California.

If Bush falters, Democrats could still piece together an Electoral College majority. But after the GOP’s resounding demonstration of strength Tuesday in the red states, the odds are high that the Democrats’ margin for error will be low.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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