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On the Defensive

Republican Party apparatchiks have dutifully maintained a stiff upper lip in recent weeks, arguing that nothing was really wrong, that next year's election won't be too bad, and that their party will suffer only a few random losses in the House and Senate.

They took solace in the relatively large number of seats (six) needed by Democrats to secure control of the Senate. And in the House, they were comforted by the fact that the playing field has shrunk considerably because of redistricting, and that the enhanced protection of incumbency would provide the necessary cushion needed if 2006 turned out to be a bad year.

But that has all changed now, and the question being asked in party circles is "Just how bad do you think it will be?"

The GOP's growing fear was most ably recorded by First Read, the daily political newsletter published by NBC's talented political unit. It quoted an unnamed "longtime GOP strategist with strong Bush credentials" as saying that Republican operatives have had "both arms around the toilet bowl" in recent days, a rather vivid image that is consistent with my recent conversations with GOP consultants and strategists.

So what now? After making the obvious disclaimer that the election is a year away and that things could still change for the better for President Bush and the party, Republicans at some point may have to reach the tough conclusion that 2006 may well be a very bad year. And if they come to that conclusion, the party will have to employ a strategy totally different from the one it used in 2002 and 2004, when Republicans were on the offensive and gained seats in the House and Senate. What worked then will not work in 2006 if the bottom falls out.

When a party is having a bad year, a number of things occur. The first to go over the side are challengers to incumbents of the other party. Very few challengers succeed in years when their party is getting hammered across the country.

In 1974, when the Watergate Democratic landslide was occurring, no Democratic incumbents in the Senate and only four in the House lost to Republican challengers. Six years later, when Republicans were enjoying the Reagan-led rout of Democrats, no GOP incumbents in the Senate and only three in the House were defeated by Democratic challengers.

Two years later, in 1982, when unemployment topped 10 percent and Republicans were slammed with charges that they would cut Social Security, only one Democratic incumbent in the House and one in the Senate lost to Republican challengers. In the 1994 Gingrich-led Republican tidal wave, not a single Republican incumbent in the House or Senate lost to a Democratic challenger.

Simply put, when the political tide is running swiftly out, against a party, very few challengers, if any, make it safely to shore.

After challengers, the choppy waters hit open-seat candidates. Those competing in enemy territory experience it first, followed by candidates in even-money districts, and then, to a lesser extent, by those in districts where the party has only a nominal advantage. Because open-seat candidates generally don't have strong, deep roots with voters, they get washed out to sea pretty easily, too.

Finally, there are the incumbents. In normal years, those seeking re-election regardless of their party are generally in very strong shape, and very few lose re-election in the absence of scandal, political stupidity, or a politically dangerous district. Even in years when the current is somewhat against them, incumbents are generally fine. At a certain point, however, weak incumbents or those in problematic districts become endangered. In certain cases (see Democratic incumbents circa 1994), it does happen.

The incumbents' advantage is the one factor that is actually working in the GOP's favor. There are simply not enough Republican retirements in the House or Senate to put the party anywhere near losing its majority from the open-seat category. The GOP would have to have a boatload of incumbents go down (at least six in the Senate, for example), and this will happen only if the current becomes a rip tide. Incumbents may be the most insulated from downturns, but they are not immune if things turn bad.

If the situation remains as bleak for Republicans in 2006 as it is today, the shortage of vulnerable open seats could well be what preserves their majorities, albeit at a reduced level. But they can't even count on that prospect.

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