Reynolds casts aside six-year itch, counts on Fenno's Paradox

Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) predicted yesterday that Republicans would keep control of the House because, even in a political environment where incumbents face stiff challenges, elections are decided by local issues.

“I’ve always indicated I believe after the elections we will hold the House. I never count how many seats we’ll have,” Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters.

He added that GOP challengers and incumbents would survive because all politics is local, a mantra made famous by former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.). National issues — whether the war in Iraq, immigration or allegations of corruption — would not affect outcomes in individual districts.

“I’ve never seen the action of one member of Congress affect another member’s district,” Reynolds said. He added that when writing about national poll numbers reporters fail to mention that, even though voters might disapprove of how the president is handling his job or how Congress is handling their job, voters tend to exclude their congressmen from those feelings, what has become known as “Fenno’s Paradox.”

In his 1979 book, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts, Richard Fenno, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, argued that if a lawmaker had a good “home style,” if he frequently tended to his district, he would win reelection.

Whether Reynolds is right this year remains to be seen, but to hold the majority he’ll have to defy a longtime trend in politics and hope that another is as true today as it was a generation ago.

Reynolds has to avoid the so-called six-year itch, the midterm election in a president’s second term that usually penalizes the governing party. But it’s not impossible.

Republicans won big in 1938, in President Roosevelt’s second term; in 1950, after Roosevelt and Harry Truman had served for 18 years; and in 1966, in the sixth year of the Kennedy-Johnson administration. Democrats succeeded in 1974 and 1986, in the sixth years of President Nixon and Reagan’s term, respectively.

In 1998, Democrats defied history by picking up House seats in the wake of Republican efforts to impeach President Clinton.

Political scientists are watching closely to see whether a Democratic sweep can occur in the era of computer-generated partisan gerrymandering, a practice in which districts are drawn to protect incumbents, said Cal Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Reynolds, of course, does not think Democrats will win. And their failure to pick up seats could make Fenno’s Paradox politics’ 11th Commandment.

“I think that all polls show if you ask people how they rate Congress and then ask them how they rate their own member, the individual member almost always gets higher, invariably gets higher [ratings],” Fenno told The Hill.

But Fenno said the theory that members who tend to their districts will carry the day depends on “all other things being equal,” and that’s not always the case, as Reynolds’s rival at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), noted.

Emanuel’s aides fired back at Reynolds’s reliance on Fenno’s Paradox to hold on to the majority.

“This point is actually also true — but only sort of,” DCCC officials wrote in a statement yesterday, noting that congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low, 23 percent, according to national polls.

“The notion that people love their congressman, however, is not true,” they wrote. 

“In almost every local poll the DCCC has conducted, Republican incumbents have had less than 43 percent support for his or her reelection, and some have reelect numbers as low as the low to mid-30s.”

For Reynolds to carry the day and save the GOP majority in November, Fenno said, voters have to decide whether their congressman is doing a good job and will continue to do a better job than a Democrat whom the voter does not know but whose party’s platform they might like better.

But that focus can cut the opposite way, too. Local issues can hurt incumbents, and the DCCC has no shortage of examples of districts where Republicans are being pummeled.

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