“Democratic congressional candidates…won more seats than anyone had dared predict…Democrats added 97 seats in the House, expanding their margin to 313 to 117 during Roosevelt’s first two years in office. The large class of incoming freshmen was filled with liberals who would faithfully support Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. . . Democratic congressional candidates swept the South, much of the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Coast. . .Republicans lost their tenuous grip on the Senate’s majority and with it their majority leader and most powerful committee chairmen. The election put legislative state houses and governor’s mansions across the nation largely under Democratic control.”
That, of course, is a synopsis of the storied elections of 1932 in which Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Presidency in a landslide and led Democrats to their greatest triumph at the polls. In his most insightful book Electing FDR, Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the U.S. Senate historical office, breathes fresh life and insight into the dramatic election of 76 years ago.
The far-reaching impact of the Democratic tide in that election cannot be understated. Democrats would hold onto majorities in both Houses of Congress for twenty-four unbroken years. Even when public sentiment soured on the Democrats in 1938 and ’42 and Republicans made big gains in mid-term elections, the cushion that Democrats had from their ’32 sweep was enough for them to hang onto their House and Senate majorities.
When you listen to the top campaign leaders for Republicans in Congress these days, or even read the numbers of who is up for election and who is retiring, it doesn’t look good for the GOP, the Presidential race notwithstanding. With 24 Republican senators facing the voters and only eleven Democratic senators up for election, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recently told reporters he would be satisfied if he held Republican losses in the Senate to three seats (the current Senate line-up is 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans). On the House side, where the line up is 236 Democrats to 199 Republicans and where 27 Republicans and only eight Democrats are relinquishing their seats, it doesn’t look pretty for Republicans. In recent interviews, both National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) and former NRCC Chairman and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis both suggested to me that their party’s goal was to minimize losses and that odds on retaking a majority in the House were somewhere between slim and none.
So with all this gloom-and-doom forecasting coming from Republicans themselves, I posed this question to some noted political historians: could the congressional elections of 2008 reach a level akin to that of 1932, the Democrats’ best-ever year in races for the House and Senate?
“In some people’s fondest dreams, yes,” historian Ritchie told me, “And it would not be unusual to have a big change in Congress. But I can’t believe 1932 — which produced more than 100 new House Members — would happen again.”
Ritchie noted that while the economy is not doing well now, it is nothing like it was in 1932, with unemployment at 25% of the nation’s workforce. In Ritchie’s words, “The Watergate election of 1974 was big for Democrats, but not that big. We’re talking about a ‘Category Five’ hurricaine, which would have a chance of occurring again only if there was a catastrophic failure of the economy. I don’t see it.”
Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report, veteran election analyst and father of the Almanac of American Politics, seconded Ritchie. Recalling the 1930 midterm elections in which Democrats made significant gains (and actually took the House from Republicans), Barone pointed out that the economy was bad then and declined further to the point of 25% unemployment. “We’re nowhere near those levels now.”
The other reason cited by Barone that is unique to the ’32 election was reapportionment. He noted how “Congress refused to reapportion House seats among the states after the 1920 Census, as required by the Constitution” because for the first time, a majority of Americans were living in urban communities and Members did not want urbanites to have increased representation.
“In the runup to the 1930 Census,” Barone recalled, “President Hoover got Congress to pass a law automatically reapportioning House seats by applying a specific formula to the Census results. It’s still in effect. That meant that 20 years of demographic change was reflected in the 1932 district lines — or, in several states, all Members were elected at-large (where states lost seats and legislatures could not agree on lines, that was the only way to do it). Thus, many, many incumbents had new districts or were redistricted in with other incumbents.” (Such circumstances would be almost out of the question today, with the “one-man, one-vote” decision of the Supreme Court in the 1960’s all but ending the scenario of House Members elected at large).
Barone gave me this interesting fact: the 1932 elections produced the only House in the 20th century in which a majority of Members had not served in the previous Congress. In his words, “I don’t think we’re going to see change as sweeping in 1932 this year.”
The lone member of the House leadership of either party whose profession is that of historian weighed in on the same side as Ritchie and Barone. Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the House Republican Whip, told me that “Republicans [with 199 seats] have the most in their minority status since 1954,” the year the GOP lost its majority in the House for the next forty years.
“There is nothing near the kind of crisis there was in 1932,” said Blunt, former instructor at Drury College (Mo.) and president of Southwest Baptist University, “and, in fact, with energy opening up as the Number One issue, Republicans are on the right side of issues. “
As for the 27 open Republican seats, the Missouri lawmaker said the GOP was only in jeopardy “in a handful of them” and could actually be competitive.
1932 all over again? It’s highly unlikely, or so the historians say. Now, 1974 was the most disastrous year for Republicans until the midterm elections of ’06, in which they lost control of both the House and Senate after twelve years. Could that be repeated? It’s a subject for another discussion with the experts — and another story.