2010 vs 1994
I agree with Josh Marshall that the parallels between 1994, when the Republicans shocked the world by taking over both Houses of Congress two years into the presidency of a charismatic Democrat, and next year are “significantly overstated.” He’s right, I think, that “The main cause of the Dems 1994 rout was structural.”
He argues, correctly, that “Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s an entire region — the South — moved decisively from the Democratic to the Republican column. Something similar happened in the inter-Mountain West and in border state parts of the Midwest. But the full impact of the transformation was hidden by incumbency and the stretch of Republican presidential rule from 1980 to 1992” and notes that “Many of these folks realized this and retired in advance of the 1994 election. Age and a strong Republican redistricting effort in 1990-92 led to even more retirements. Looking back in retrospect, what’s surprising about 1994 is not the result. It is the fact that very, very few people saw it coming, even in the final days before the election.”
It took a series of scandals among key House Democrats, a wildly unpopular Democratic incumbent (who righted the ship in reaction), and radical changes in campaign finance regulations which incentivized a lot of the old geezers to take the money and not run. We don’t really have any of these things this go-round.
The key problem for Dems isn’t unpopularity. It’s a highly apathetic Democratic electorate facing an extremely energized Tea Party GOP. Still, there is one parallel. Just as in 1994 you had dozens of Democratic seats that couldn’t withstand real partisan contention, the huge victories in 2006 and 2008 have created a situation where not a few members of the Democratic House Caucus are sitting in what are essentially Republican districts. Perhaps not overwhelmingly so — but enough that they’ll be hard to hold in a tough year for Democrats.
Indeed, Republicans really should have taken back a large number of House seats in 2008. The only reasons they didn’t were the incredible backlash created by the Bush presidency and the boost in turnout created by Barack Obama’s coattails. Neither of those will exist in 2010.
GOP voters will be energized in 2010 and the majority of voting Independents will likely be in an anti-incumbent mood next November. The combination of structural pressures — lots of retiring Democrats, lots of unestablished Democrats in Republican districts — and the sorry state of the economy should lead to substantial Republican gains.
But there does not seem to be a Contract for America moment emerging, either. While Newt Gingrich took too much credit for the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” it’s nonetheless the case that the party advanced a positive agenda that helped nationalize the election and sway some voters. The Tea Party movement, by contrast, is mostly negative. Simply being angry about the status quo isn’t enough to create a landslide.