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GOP Seeks Lasting Majority

Times Staff Writer

Emboldened by a popular president, key fund-raising advantages and an opposition party plagued by divisions, Republicans are heading into the 2004 campaign eyeing a goal that extends far beyond the election: They want to establish political dominion for years to come.

With the GOP now controlling the White House and Congress, next year’s vote looms as a test of whether this Republican reign is an interlude or the start of an enduring period of political supremacy on par with Democrats’ hegemony for much of the 20th century.

“The president has said he does not want a lonely victory,” said Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “We really have an opportunity here to make this a permanent majority.”

Toward that end, Republicans have pressed their cause with bold -- some say hardball -- tactics. They launched an effort to redraw state political maps to favor GOP candidates. They are laying claim to issues -- such as improving education and health benefits -- traditionally associated with Democrats. They are trying to turn Washington’s lobbying establishment into an army of GOP loyalists. And they are building up campaign treasuries that dwarf the Democrats’.

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“It is breathtaking,” said Thomas Mann, an expert on politics at the Brookings Institution think tank. “It’s the most hard-nosed effort I’ve seen to use one’s current majority [to try] to enlarge and maintain that majority.”

The effort may not succeed, but the sheer exuberance of the GOP drive stands in stark contrast to the pessimism that pervades Democratic circles.

“This is a tough year,” said a senior official of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We had a depressing election in 2002. It would be foolish not to admit that recruiting candidates and raising money is twice as hard.”

Republicans appear in especially good position to increase their narrow congressional majorities. Contested Senate races will be fought largely on terrain favorable to the GOP. And analysts surveying House races give Democrats little chance, as of now, of winning a majority.

Still, gains in Congress would be of limited solace to the GOP, should President Bush fail to win reelection. And Democrats have been heartened in recent weeks by the freshly cut chinks in Bush’s armor: the economy’s stubborn refusal to rebound, persistent questions about his credibility in making the case for the attack on Iraq, and the rising costs and casualties of postwar operations there.

Indeed, Republicans acknowledge that their high-flying ambitions could be deflated if these problems persist.

“If conditions are as they are right now on election day -- an economy that still needs to grow, and we’re not where we need to be in Iraq -- our political conditions are going to be pretty difficult,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But Roy added: “We think we have taken steps to improve the economic situation and manage the ongoing war on terrorism.”

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If Republicans do manage to usher in an era of durable GOP majorities, it would upend the balance of power that prevailed for much of the 20th century. Building on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide presidential triumph during the Great Depression, Democrats controlled the House for all but four years from 1932 to 1994. They also dominated the Senate during most of that time.

The Democratic grip began to break in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory helped the GOP obtain a majority in the Senate. But that was a false summit in the climb to GOP ascendancy: Democrats regained the chamber in 1986. The entire Congress did not fall into Republican hands until 1994.

A Democrat in the White House -- Bill Clinton -- served as a check to GOP lawmakers through 2000. And in that year’s election, which produced Bush’s cliffhanging victory and a Congress split almost 50-50, the parties battled to a virtual draw.

But now, Republicans see signs that the nation’s balance of political power is beginning to break their way.

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Polls find that almost as many people identify themselves as Republicans as they do Democrats -- culminating a steady narrowing of the gap between the two parties. And for the first time since 1952, more state legislators are Republican than Democratic.

Karl Rove, Bush’s political advisor, argues that a GOP realignment may have begun with the 2002 election, when Republicans defied historical trends by picking up seats in the House and Senate. Traditionally, the president’s party loses congressional seats in midterm elections.

Republicans clearly benefited from some ephemeral factors -- such as a well-organized turnout effort and strong candidates. But Rove said in a speech shortly after the election, “I think something else more fundamental is happening ... but we will only know it retrospectively in two years or four years or six years [when we] look back and say the dam began to break in 2002.”

Bush aides, House and Senate campaign officials and other GOP leaders are already meeting regularly to plot strategy for the 2004 election. Democrats will be hard-pressed to achieve such focus and unity until their party settles on a presidential nominee early next year. Until then -- and perhaps even after -- the party is likely to continue battling over its best message for running against Bush.

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The prospects are bright for the GOP to expand its Senate majority, in part because only 15 Republican seats are up for election in 2004, compared with 19 held by Democrats. Also, seven of the Democratic seats are in states that Bush carried by 5 percentage points or more in 2000 -- such as North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Meanwhile, even the head of the Democratic House campaign committee conceded that it would take a significant change in the political climate for his party to win a majority.

“It’s doable,” said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento. “But we’ve got to get a wind behind us. The status quo won’t work.”

The redistricting process created a major obstacle to the Democratic hopes of recapturing the House. In virtually all states, the maps drawn after the 2000 Census were inspired mostly by the desire of incumbents to protect themselves. The result: few opportunities for one party to claim seats from the other.

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“This process gave Republicans an advantage that will be difficult for Democrats to overcome before the next redistricting,” Mark Gersh, a Democratic political strategist, wrote in a recent magazine article.

In addition, Republicans in two states embarked on the precedent-shattering step of attempting to redraw district lines for a second time in one decade.

They succeeded in Colorado, where the GOP-controlled Legislature in June altered boundaries set by its Democratic-dominated predecessor. Republicans in Texas, egged on by DeLay, are trying to do the same, although whether they will succeed is in doubt.

Republicans traditionally have enjoyed an advantage in fund-raising, and it appears that that supremacy is being amplified by the new campaign finance reform law that many GOP leaders opposed. The law has forced candidates and parties to rely on contributions that are capped at $2,000 a person -- and Republicans have proven more adept at generating such donations.

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In the three-month reporting period that ended June 30, Bush raised almost $34.5 million for his reelection campaign. That was more than the combined total for all nine of the Democratic presidential contenders during that time. And on Friday and Saturday, fund-raisers in Texas added about $7 million to the Bush coffers.

The Republican House and Senate campaign committees also are outpacing their Democratic counterparts in the money chase.

Helping fuel the GOP lead in fund-raising has been the party’s pressure on the Washington lobbying establishment. Since Republicans took control of the House, DeLay has been leaning on corporate political action committees and other donors to end their once-common practice of hedging their political bets by giving to both parties.

And in an initiative dubbed the “K Street Project” -- named for a Washington street that is lined with lobbyist offices -- DeLay and other GOP leaders have been urging trade associations and special interest groups to hire Republicans in key posts. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, routinely consults with GOP lobbyists to discuss job openings and who might fill them.

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“When Democrats controlled [Congress], they dominated K Street,” said one source familiar with the meetings. “There’s been a significant shift since 1994.”

Whatever their structural, financial and tactical advantages over Democrats, Republicans still need to make incursions into traditional Democratic constituencies to build a lasting majority. Bush has led the way in the effort to court Latino voters -- the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.

He also has tried to blunt the Democratic edge when debate turns to domestic concerns. Bush periodically stresses his proposals to improve public schools. And by pushing for a prescription drug benefit through Medicare, his administration hopes to neutralize the Democratic argument that Republicans are hostile to government programs that help seniors.

A recent poll for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Democrats were still preferred over Republicans on handling health-care reform, 38% to 31%. But that is significantly diminished from the poll’s findings in 1998, when Democrats were favored 53% to 25%.

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Democrats insist that Republicans may be guilty of hubris as they aim high in the next election, even as economic woes and ongoing conflict in Iraq are taking a toll on Bush’s poll ratings.

“They are cocky because they have all three branches of government” and do so well at raising money, said Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But


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