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With Michael's Steele's term as chairman of the Republican National Committee set to expire in January, several candidates have emerged as possible replacements. Steele hasn't yet announced whether he will seek another term, but last week he circulated a memo to RNC members defending himself against some of his GOP critics and highlighting his achievements as chairman.
Asked in an NPR interview on Nov. 8, 2010, about the public grumblings from some Republican officials about RNC fundraising, Steele dismissed the criticism, saying it was "about the fact that they don't want me in this job, to put it rather bluntly."
Steele defended his tenure as RNC chairman, saying, "I have won more elections than any chairman since 1938. In fact, none of my predecessors have been able to put together the kind of combination of wins."
The battle for RNC chairman promises to heat up quickly in the coming month, so we decided to check Steele's talking point, that he has "won more elections than any chairman since 1938."
We e-mailed the RNC press office for backup, and they pointed us to a story in the Cook Political Report that characterized the Republicans' gain of 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm elections as "the most seismic shift of House seats in a midterm election since 1938."
We checked it out, and if Steele had specified that he was talking only about seat changes in the House, he'd be accurate. The 64-seat gain by Republicans this year is more than any year since 1939 (when Republicans picked up a whopping 81 seats).
But Steele didn't say seat changes. And, in fact, Republicans won more seats in the House -- 246 -- in 1946. The number of Republican House wins this year is actually still unsettled, as a handful of very close races are still being sorted out. But provided the Republicans currently leading in those races are ultimately declared the winners, the final tally would be 243 Republican seats. That's awfully close but not quite as many House wins for Republicans as in 1946.
More importantly, though, Steele didn't say he was talking only about the House. The RNC also supports Republican candidates in U.S. Senate, governor and state legislature elections.
To be clear, Republicans did very well in all of these areas in the 2010 midterms. But the GOP has had better years in Senate and gubernatorial elections. An analysis by the American Enterprise Institute of 100 years worth of midterm election gains made by the party out of power shows that the six seats picked up in the Senate this year are fewer than in 1942 (10 seats); 1946 (13 seats); and 1994 (nine seats). And when it comes to governor elections, you also don't need to go back as far as 1938 to find a year in which Republicans picked up more state capitals. This year, six governors' seats changed to Republican, but 11 governors' seats changed to Republican in 1994.
As for state legislature elections, it was a banner election for Republicans this year, with about 690 seats switching to Republican. Because some states hold state legislative elections in odd years, the National Conference of State Legislatures prefers to look at two-year cycles. By that measure, Republicans have gained 724 seats, Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the NCSL.
There are now more Republicans holding state legislative seats than at any point since 1928, Storey said. Of the 7,382 total state legislative seats, 53 percent are now occupied by Republicans.
"It's definitely an historic high-water mark," Storey said.
But strictly speaking, Republicans gained even more state legislative seats in 1966 (when they picked up 762 seats -- 38 more than in this two-year cycle).
The authors of the AEI analysis, James Fortier and Jennifer Marsico, also calculated a midterm power ranking (based on the average of their rankings in four categories -- House, Senate, governor and state legislature elections). The Republican gains in 2010 ranked sixth. That's behind 1994 (a year of major Republican gains) and 1958 (which Democrats dominated).
"Overall, it was one of the best years for Republicans in the last 60 years," Fortier said.
If Steele decides to seek another term as chairman of the RNC, he can certainly boast about significant Republican gains in the midterm election. But when he said, "I have won more elections than any chairman since 1938," that's only true if you were to consider just the seat changes -- as opposed to the actual number of wins -- in the U.S. House. Republicans also picked up seats in the Senate this year, but they gained more in 1942, 1946 and 1994; Republican gains in governor elections were greater in 1994; and GOP gains in state legislatures were greater in 1966. And so we rate Steele's claim Half True.
NPR, Interview with Michael Steele, Nov. 8, 2010
Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Party Divisions of the House of Representatives (1789 to Present)
Los Angeles Times, "Democratic congressman concedes defeat in North Carolina," by Michael A. Memoli, Nov. 19, 2010
American Enterprise Institute, "Election 2010: How the Results Stack Up Historically," by John Fortier and Jennifer Marsico, November, 2010
Interview with James Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, Dec. 1, 2010
Interview with Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Dec. 2, 2010
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