Northeast and Midwest win clout

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's electoral upheaval wiped out many of the few remaining Republican moderates in Congress, further cementing the geographic partitioning of the House and potentially widening the ideological divisions that have contributed t...

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's electoral upheaval wiped out many of the few remaining Republican moderates in Congress, further cementing the geographic partitioning of the House and potentially widening the ideological divisions that have contributed to partisanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill.

At a time when President Bush and congressional leaders in both parties are preaching the importance of bipartisanship, the structural realities of where the two parties now get most of their House votes may create enormous obstacles to greater harmony and cooperation.

Prospects for legislative action may hinge on whether Bush decides to seek accommodation with Democrats and to build any victories with a truly bipartisan coalition, or whether House Republicans, now a smaller and more ideologically homogenous caucus, press vigorously for a reassertion of conservative policies and initiatives.

Tuesday's election results accelerated the geographical realignment of the House that began with the 1994 landslide, which was fueled by the transformation of congressional districts in the South from Democratic to Republican. Republicans picked up 20 seats in the South that year, shifting the geographic center of the GOP to a region where the party was dominated by religious and social conservatives.

What happened this week was, in the eyes of many political analysts, an almost inevitable backlash after a decade of Republican rule in Congress in which many of the leaders came from Southern states and GOP policies were designed to appeal to the party's most conservative elements.


Opposition to the war in Iraq provided the final push that helped flip the Northern and Midwestern districts. Exit polls showed the president and the Republican brand more unpopular in the Northeast than in anywhere else in the country, and the party lost about a third of its 36 House seats in that region -- and came close to losing several more.

Of the 28 House seats that Democrats have picked up in the midterm election, 10 came in the Northeast and another 10 came in the Midwest. They added five seats in the South and three in the West.

The results produced a historic shift in the balance of regional power in Congress. The majority party in the House is now the minority party among Southern states for the first time since the 83rd Congress in 1953-54. The same holds for the new Democratic-controlled Senate, except for a brief period in the 1980s.

"With one two-year blip, for the last 50 years, the majority party in the South has been the majority party (in the House and Senate) and that just changed in one election," said Thomas Schaller, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The most prominent House Republicans who lost their seats were among the chamber's best-known moderates, including Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, a veteran legislator who was not seen as endangered by either party; Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who managed to win her first election to the House during what was otherwise a Republican shellacking in 1982; and Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., who suffered in a historic wipeout of his party at all levels in the Granite State on Tuesday.

The consolidation of the Northeast and the shifts in the Midwest will echo in the 110th Congress -- and potentially longer if Democrats can consolidate their gains in those two regions in future elections.

The elimination of GOP moderates could push House Republicans further to the right. By Schaller's analysis, 10 of the28 most liberal members of the Republican conference were defeated. With fewer moderates, Republicans are less likely to feel pressure to bow to the wishes of moderates, especially on fiscal issues.

Most of the leading candidates for GOP party leadership are promising a return to conservative principles, especially on fiscal issues. Few are calling for more compromise. "We did not just lose our majority -- we lost our way," Rep. Mike Pence,R-Ind., a candidate for minority leader, wrote his colleagues.


Whether a likely shift to the right within the House GOP caucus will be offset by a move toward the center forced by the new crop of freshman Democrats is a matter of debate inside the Democratic party. Centrists see the new crop of Democrats enhancing their ranks, but progressives say they will have even more new allies.

Newcomers such as Democrat Brad Ellsworth of Indiana are social conservatives, opposed to abortion and gun control. These members have told leaders they will lose their seats in 2008 if the party moves too far to the left. But most of the Democrats who won favor abortion rights and an analysis by the liberal Campaign for America's Future concludes that skeptics of free trade agreements will replace advocates of such pacts in 15 districts.

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