Why the 2010 Congressional Elections Won't Repeat 1994

The Democrats can still hold their majority.

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The Democratic victory you didn't hear about last week, as it was (rightly) overshadowed by the Senate's final move toward a landmark healthcare overhaul, came when Rep. John Spratt, the South Caro­lina Democrat who chairs the House Budget Committee, announced that he would seek re-election.

Spratt is one of 48 "McCain Democrats," so called because while they were winning their districts last year, so was GOP presidential nominee John McCain. (The number was 49 as recently as Tuesday, when freshman Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama switched his affiliation to Republican.) Spratt's decision was particularly important because in recent weeks two other McCain Democrats­—Tennessee Reps. Bart Gordon and John Tanner—had declared their intention to retire. Democratic Reps. Dennis Moore of Kansas and Brian Baird of Washington also had recently announced their retirements from highly competitive House seats. While seven other Democrats had already announced they would not run again, Gordon, Moore, Tanner, and Baird were among the first to vacate competitive seats, prompting speculation that they were the trickle before a retirement flood that could threaten the Democratic majority.

Republicans' magic number is 40—they would have to gain a net of 40 seats to wrest control of the House from Democrats. Such a gain would be the biggest by either party since the historic GOP sweep of 1994, when they picked up 54 seats.

You remember 1994. Voters were dissatisfied with a young Democratic president who had run as a centrist but governed as too much of a liberal. The electorate was worried about burgeoning deficits and soured on the president's sweeping attempt at healthcare reform. GOP victories in the off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey were portents of things to come. Rush Limbaugh rallied conservatives on the airwaves, while Rahm Emanuel worked for the Democrats in the White House.

The parallels are striking, but don't get carried away (as some gleeful conservatives have): There are a number of important differences.

Where, for example, is this year's Newt Gingrich? In 1994, Gingrich was able to steer the good ship GOP to get maximum benefit from the political wave. The 2010 Republican Party seems to have no one at the tiller. That Republicans seem headed toward political gains has more to do with the tide than their course.

In part that's because the ship remains in a state of partial mutiny. Some would-be leaders, like former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, seem as interested in targeting the GOP establishment as the Democrats. The same is true of the tea party crew, whose disgust with establishment Republicans is eclipsed only by their loathing of Barack Obama and the Democrats. That voter anger may still power the GOP in November, but right now the Republicans' ability to harness it remains unclear.

And that is connected with another key difference from 1994: The GOP has a track record. People remember eight years of Bush, mostly with Republicans controlling the Congress as well. That's why the party had a 28 percent favorability rating with 43 percent unfavorable in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. (Democrats fared marginally better, with 35 percent favorable and 45 percent not.)

Perhaps the biggest reason the 2010 political landscape differs from 1994 is the 1994 elections themselves. That election was a temblor that permanently changed the campaign culture in Washington. Right up until it crumbled, the Democratic majority seemed sturdy and enduring. With control of the House never an issue, the party-level stakes were not high. House members could (and often did) wait until the calendar flipped to an even-numbered year before focusing on their re-election. As former Rep. Martin Frost wrote in Politico recently, "because the Republican tide broke late in the 1994 election cycle, some Democrats never saw it coming."

But 1994 changed that. Each election since has been a pitched battle, with the speaker's gavel as the prize. Both parties work hard to ensure that they won't be taken by surprise and that their potentially vulnerable members are in the best position to run for re-election. "They make it a science now," Democratic pollster Brad Bannon says. "It's much more structured and much more institutionalized than it used to be, especially since '94."