After touting GOP's "remarkable" feat in 2002 election, media ignored historical context for Dem victories in 2006


Even though Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate without losing a single seat -- an electoral feat last accomplished in 1938 -- the media have not highlighted this achievement in the two weeks after Election Day. But when Republicans gained seats in both the House and Senate in the 2002 midterm elections, the first time since 1934 a president's party had done so during its first midterm election, news outlets praised it as "remarkable" and "historic."

On November 7, Democrats not only gained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, they did so without losing a single seat in either chamber of Congress. The last election in which a major political party retained all of its House seats came in 1938, when the Republicans took 81 seats without losing a single one of their own. That year, the Republicans -- like the Democrats in 2006 -- held all of their seats in the Senate as well. But in the two weeks after Election Day, the media have almost entirely ignored the Democrats' accomplishment, which may be only the second such feat in U.S. history. Instead, news outlets have found the ink and airtime to highlight purported divisions in the Democratic ranks and celebrate the likes of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), for purportedly emerging victorious from an election in which he was not a candidate and in which the public soundly rejected his position on some of the most controversial issues of the day; Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), who lost a Senate race by 10 points, but was praised by the media for his campaign, despite its deceptions; and Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), who was elected Senate minority whip after being drummed out of the leadership four years ago in a controversy that many in the media glossed over in covering his "redemption."

By contrast, when the GOP gained seats in both the House and Senate in the 2002 midterm elections, news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek were quick to point out that it represented the first time since 1934 a president's party had done so during its first midterm election -- a feat they described at the time as "remarkable" and "historic."

In a November 8 online article, CBS News reported that the Democrats had seized control of the House after winning 28 seats previously held by Republicans. CBS further noted that the Democrats had held all of their seats in the chamber, adding, "The last time a party did not lose a House seat in an election was 1938." But while the article highlighted this substantial Democratic feat in the House, even CBS underplayed the accomplishment, overlooking the fact that it extended to the Senate as well. Indeed, of the 17 Democratic Senate seats up for grabs in 2006, Republican candidates failed to win a single one.* This outcome also last occurred in the 1938 midterm election. From an Associated Press article (subscription required) that appeared in the November 12, 1938, edition of The New York Times:

Republican forces in Congress came through Tuesday's election without the loss of a seat. Veteran officials here said today, that as far as they were able to determine, the record was unique for a major party.

Republicans took eight seats in the Senate. In the House they won seventy-two from Democrats, five from Progressives, and four from Farmer-Laborites.

Therefore, the 2006 Democratic victories in Congress represent:

  • The first election since 1938 in which a U.S. political party retained all its House seats.
  • Apparently only the second time in U.S. history that a "major party" survived an election without losing a single seat in either the House or the Senate.

While this achievement would appear worthy of mention in the media, with the exception of the CBS News article, news outlets have almost entirely ignored it. Indeed, a Media Matters for America survey** of the post-election coverage found only two other instances in which this historical context surfaced. In an article in the November 13 edition of CQ Weekly, Congressional Quarterly staff writer Gregory L. Giroux reported that "the Democrats retained every one of the seats they defended -- a task neither party had accomplished in nearly 70 years." In the second instance, it was not a media figure -- but, rather, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- who brought it up.

From an interview with Emanuel on the November 8 edition of The Charlie Rose Show:

EMANUEL: [S]o I'm surprised at the depth and breadth of this. Never before, not since 1938, has a party that was making major gains not lost a single seat. And I can stand here today -- no Democratic seat, either incumbent or open seat, was lost. Hasn't happened since '38, and this is the third time in the last 60 years, only the third time that the Congress has switched, '48 and '94.

Moreover, even while largely ignoring the historical significance of the election results, the media have "continu[ed] to direct their scorn at Democrats and progressives," as Media Matters noted on November 17:

Just this week, media have hyped purported Democratic disarray while downplaying or ignoring altogether GOP infighting; falsely suggested that Nancy Pelosi is as unpopular as President Bush; asserted that Democrats -- who do not yet actually control Congress and won't until next year -- are "starting to feel some of the pressure" of catching Osama bin Laden without explaining how Bush and the GOP let him get away; and suggested that Nancy Pelosi, who hasn't even become speaker of the House yet, is already "damaged goods." Meanwhile, Trent Lott, who has as good a claim on being "damaged goods" as anyone, is the beneficiary of a media whitewash of his history of associating himself with racist organizations and ideas. Fox News, not typically known for subtlety or for downplaying controversy, told viewers that Lott "ran into a little bit of difficulty, but now he's making a comeback." Yes, that unpleasantness about his suggestion that America would be better off had a segregationist been elected president is behind him, and Lott is now ready, we presume, to act as a uniter, not a divider.

Beyond Lott, the media have showered McCain and Steele with favorable coverage. For instance, on the November 13 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, senior political analyst Bill Schneider declared that McCain's presidential ambitions got a boost from "a midterm where Iraq was a big issue." Several days later, on the November 19 edition of the NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, host Chris Matthews and his panel celebrated McCain's position on Iraq and admired his "formula for getting back" into the presidential race. Meanwhile, on the November 15 edition of The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer called Steele's unsuccessful Senate campaign "spectacular" and "principled" -- despite widespread allegations of dishonest and controversial tactics.

In contrast to their treatment of the Democratic victory in 2006, the media touted the historical significance of the GOP's success in the 2002 midterm elections. That year, the Republicans picked up eight seats in the House and two in the Senate. These victories represented the first time since 1934 that a president's party had gained seats in both chambers during his first midterm election of his first term. Due to this fact, news outlets trumpeted the election results as a feat of historical proportions on the part of the Republicans -- and President Bush in particular.

On the November 7, 2002, edition of CNN's Inside Politics, Schnieder pointed to the historical context as an indicator of the magnitude of the Republican victories:

SCHNEIDER: [H]ow big a win was it for the GOP? It's the first midterm since 1934 the president's party has gained strength in both the House and the Senate. Democrats expected to gain the majority of the nation's governors. They failed. For the first time in 50 years, Republicans will hold more seats in the nation's state legislatures than Democrats. And it was truly nationwide.

CNN correspondent Bruce Morton similarly framed the elections in a report on Bush's efforts on the campaign trail. From the November 10, 2002, edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer:

MORTON: So, of course, Bush campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates, and in last week's election, his party took control of the Senate and gained seats in the House. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has gained since during his first midterm election.

On the November 6, 2002, edition of NBC's Today, Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman remarked on how well "the Republicans did with George Bush":

FINEMAN: The fact that he picked up seats in the House, the Republicans did, is -- is just as amazing. The fact is it's not been since John F. Kennedy in 1962 and really going all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt where a sitting president's party has done as well as the Republicans did with George Bush. It really is historic.

In an article in the in the November 18, 2002, issue of Newsweek, Fineman provided more detail regarding how Bush "led his party" to historical gains and depicted the Democrats as "divided and confused" in the wake of the election:

By last August, NEWSWEEK has learned, Bush & Co. essentially had their interlocking, three-part game plan in place: to raise the stakes and lengthen the debate on our dealings with Iraq, to press the Democrats to accept the White House version of a Department of Homeland Security (and hammer them if they opposed it) and to deploy both issues to burnish the president's popularity with the GOP faithful, to whom Bush would appeal in coast-to-coast campaigning in the final weeks of the 2002 campaign.

The plan paid off. For the first time since 1934 (in FDR's first term), a president led his party to gains in both chambers of Congress two years into his first term. His Democratic opposition was left divided and confused, groping for ways to oppose a leader they had dismissed as a dimwitted usurper after the disputed election of 2000.

In the days after Election Day, the major print outlets also framed the results in a historical context. For instance, in a November 7, 2002, article (subscription required), then-New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, Jr., depicted the "remarkable" Republican gains as a vindication of sorts for Bush:

Like Ronald Reagan, who was underestimated by those who saw him only as a superficial actor, President Bush is often taken too lightly by opponents preoccupied by his mangled syntax and his seemingly shaky grasp of issues. That is less likely to happen after Tuesday.

The Republican victories in the midterm elections were remarkable in historical context. No other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 has seen his party gain ground in the Senate and the House two years into his first term. Mr. Bush and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, devised a closing campaign blitz-krieg for the president that paid dividends, especially in the party's Southern stronghold.

In a November 7, 2002, article, Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle similarly reported that Bush's achievement had been "matched only once in the past 100 years":

The Minnesota win, after a long night of counting ballots, capped an impressive list of GOP successes, especially in light of a century of political history. With few exceptions, presidents lose power in Congress in their first midterm elections. By picking up seats in both the House and Senate, Bush managed an accomplishment matched only once in the past 100 years -- by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.

Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein also joined in, calling the GOP victories "historic" in a November 11, 2002, column:

This election suggests that, at least for now, Bush is locking down virtually all of the culturally conservative areas of the country for the GOP -- a trend with implications for control of Congress and for the 2004 presidential race.

Bush's achievement was historic; since the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 was the only other president to win House and Senate seats in his first midterm.

The media even found other reasons to celebrate the Republicans' "historic" accomplishment. Indeed, in a November 7, 2002, article, Washington Post staff writer Christopher Lee noted that, for the first time since 1938, the president's party had gained state legislative seats in a midterm election:

Republicans matched their gains in Congress with a historic showing Tuesday in the nation's statehouses, capturing more state legislative seats than Democrats did for the first time in half a century.

The GOP had a net gain of about 200 legislative seats, defying historic trends in which the president's party has lost an average of 350 seats in every midterm election cycle since 1938.

* Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman lost in the August 8 Connecticut Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Declaring his intent to caucus with the Democrats if re-elected to the Senate, Lieberman subsequently ran and won as an independent in the general election.

** Nexis database search: "election and democrats and house and senate and seat and (193! or Roosevelt or FDR or 68 years or 70 years or seven decades or six decades)" in "News (All)" between 11/7/06 and 11/21/06

Posted In
Chris Matthews, Bill Schneider, Wolf Blitzer
The Chris Matthews Show, The Situation Room
2006 Elections
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