Odds Improve for the GOP -- And for Tea Party

Next year's Congress will be a very different breed of animal.

There’s no longer denying two overwhelming trends that -- barring a last-minute voter backlash -- are likely to produce a markedly changed Congress next year, one that is much more Republican and much more conservative. The GOP is poised for major gains, with even odds that the party will take the House and come close to parity in the Senate. Perhaps even more significant, the new crop of Republicans in Congress will be far more conservative than their GOP fellows in the House today.

Democrats are pinning their hopes for a comeback on economic gains -- a recovery that would make people a little less pessimistic about the future. That isn’t happening. Depressing housing numbers, slower growth and a lack of progress in job creation are undermining confidence and consumer spending, which is further retarding growth.

As a result, even among Democrats are becoming more pessimistic about their chances of holding on to the House, despite the big financial advantage they hold. Politico summed up (opens in new tab) that pessimism today, and respected political pundits are increasingly seeing a GOP takeover. Charlie Cook, the preeminent analyst of individual House races, goes so far as to say the odds now favor (opens in new tab) that outcome, and others will likely follow suit.

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Although the Senate is still unlikely to change hands because Republicans would need to win almost every competitive race, the odds are rising. Nate Silver, whose painstaking analyses of polls and data are widely respected, sees a GOP gain (opens in new tab) of six to seven seats, and rates the chances of gaining 10 -- the number needed to seize control -- at about 20%, up from essentially zero not long ago.

What’s more, Republicans who are elected in November will be far more conservative than those in office today. Tea Party-backed candidates are doing far better than anyone expected, knocking off more moderate, establishment-backed candidates in several primaries. The latest example is the likely defeat (opens in new tab) of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska to Joe Miller, who had the support of Sarah Palin and Tea Party activists. If Miller wins the nomination, he’ll join several other GOP Tea Party candidates for the Senate: Ken Buck in Colorado, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Marco Rubio in Florida. Many House members, both incumbents and candidates, are also in the Tea Party camp. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has formed a Tea Party caucus with more than a dozen members, including Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN), Steve King (R-IA), Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) and John Carter (R-TX).

Even incumbent GOP candidates not connected to the Tea Party have been moving noticeably to the right to fend off challengers. That’s what helped Sen. John McCain win his primary in Arizona. Some Republicans may move back toward the center for the general election, as Rubio is already doing, but many won’t want to risk undermining GOP enthusiasm.

The rightward move is working well for the Republican Party in the elections. It is exciting the base and boosting turnout. In this week’s Florida primaries, for example, GOP turnout was one third higher than Democratic turnout. It’s less clear that tilting right is best strategy for the GOP in the long run. The vast majority of Americans sit more in the middle, whether center-right or center-left, and unless Republicans can appeal to them (including the growing proportion of minorities), their chances of winning Congress and the presidency in 2012 are likely to diminish.

As for what the shift will mean when the new Congress convenes: If a more conservative Republican Party holds firm, the result will be complete deadlock, with no chance of compromise with Obama and Democrats. That will be fine with the part of the population that wants to tear up Congress in order to remake it, but it won’t help solve the problems that are boosting antiestablishment candidates in the first place -- including reining in the deficit and fixing the economy. And it may stymie revisions in the new health care law. Both sides think some reworking is necessary, but if the GOP insists on an all-or-nothing repeal, the result will be the status quo.

The problem is that people today -- with plenty of reason -- are voting against the status quo in Washington and more specifically, against the economy. That may or may not be a worthwhile first step, but the second step has to be to propose solutions -- solutions only that not only will work but also that can be passed by a divided government. Nobody is thinking enough about that now. Eventually, they’ll have to.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter