There has been a lot of political talk that 2010 might resemble 1994, or the reverse of 2006-2008, or maybe 1982, when unemployment was over 10 percent for 10 months and Ronald Reagan lost 26 House seats.
Now, many journalists like Carl Hulse of the New York Times are raising the specter of 1980 and the Reagan landslide that gave Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in 30 years.
In the summer and fall of 1980, I was in Idaho, helping manage Frank Church’s re-election bid, and we had been watching the tsunami building all year long. We ran the toughest campaign possible, lost by just 4,000 votes, but knew there was a large group of “endangered species” out there as we called ourselves: Church, McGovern, Culver, Bayh, Nelson, Stewart, Magnuson, et al. The shock wasn’t that individual Democrats were in danger but just how many there were and that the Senate could actually switch to a Republican majority. Democrats lost 12 seats that year and there were 18 new senators in January of 1981.
The record for new senators after an election is 20. Right now, with Lisa Murkowski’s loss, that number is already going to be at least 15, with three incumbents defeated and another dozen retiring.
One thing is certain: Change is in the air and it will be reflected in the Senate and in the House in January of 2011. But the problem for the Republicans is what kind of change?
There is a line I like to use about political tsunamis: They wash up a lot of dead fish on the beach. In 1980, a collection of highly ineffective, hard right senators were elected: Steve Symms of Idaho, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, Mack Mattingly of Georgia, Paula Hawkins of Florida, and James Abnor of South Dakota. All were defeated in 1986, except Symms, who lasted two terms. Democrats regained the Senate that year.
If you look at the crop of Republican Senate nominees this year--Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado, Mike Lee of Utah, Linda McMahon of Connecticut, Joe Miller of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania--they make that crew from 1980 look almost moderate.
Poor Mitch McConnell. Can you imagine the crew he will have to deal with if they win their races? This will be the bar scene from Star Wars.
And when it comes to the House of Representatives, I have had numerous Republicans and conservative thinkers tell me that their dream is to win 35 House seats but not get a majority. They don’t want John Boehner as speaker and they know the Republicans aren’t ready for the responsibility of running the House.
Many people I have talked to say privately that a big Republican win in 2010 would lead to a big Obama victory in 2012. One thing we have learned is how fast the pendulum swings and how far it swings. These aren’t mid-course corrections that we have been going through but rather rapid and serious movements of the political pendulum.
Can you imagine the gridlock if antigovernment, extreme Republicans take control of Congress? What will get done? As much as this will frustrate Obama and the Democrats, they can see the possibility in a 1948-style Harry Truman campaign against the “Do Nothing” Congress in 2012. It doesn’t take much to play out this possibility and for voters to recognize that the decisions Obama has made, and the legislation he has passed, will look awfully darn good as he battles for re-election. Especially with what the Republicans have to offer.
So Republicans had better look at the past and look down the road--their current euphoria may not last long.