Sunday, April 05, 2009

Redux of 1994 is Unlikely

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Having just lost the White House and facing smaller minorities in the House and the Senate, Republicans begin the 2010 election cycle in a remarkably similar position to where they were in 1993 — just one year before the GOP’s historic sweep of Congress.

At least on paper.

But while on the surface the landscape is similar, a closer examination of today’s Republican Party reveals significant weaknesses and a steeper climb back to the majority.

By the numbers, the GOP has an almost identical starting point in the House and the Senate as it did in 1993. Republicans held 176 seats in the House and 43 seats in the Senate at the beginning of the 103rd Congress, compared with 178 House seats and 41 Senate seats in the 111th.

With a volatile economy and President Barack Obama’s expansive recovery plans, some Republicans are sensing that the 2010 elections could be a replay of the 1994 GOP tsunami.

“A ‘yes’ vote [on the budget] on top of the stimulus vote could beat enough Democrats to get Republicans back into the majority,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in a recent interview.

There’s little question that the GOP is expected to pick up House seats next year, but Republicans have a very slim chance of getting the 40 seats they need.

The Depth of Obama’s Victory

In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected with more Electoral College votes than Obama (370 versus 365), but his victory was more personal, considering Democrats simultaneously lost 10 seats in the House and there was no net change in the Senate.

Obama’s 2008 victory was wider and deeper. He received 53 percent of the popular vote (compared with only 43 percent for Clinton in a three-way race), and his coattails helped Democrats net 21 House seats — the most to accompany an incoming president since Dwight Eisenhower’s coattails brought 22 in 1952. Democrats also gained at least seven Senate seats (with Minnesota a possible eighth), the most since Ronald Reagan brought in a dozen new GOP Senators in 1980.

Despite their similar minority position 16 years ago, Republicans were held in higher regard than today. A May 1993 survey for U.S. News & World Report showed the Republican Party with 47 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable ratings. A March 23-26 poll conducted for the liberal Web site Daily Kos by the nonpartisan firm Research 2000 showed the GOP with 27 percent favorable/64 percent unfavorable ratings.

And even though President George H.W. Bush lost re-election in 1992, he left office with higher approval ratings than his son. According to a mid-January 1993 Gallup Poll, the 41st president rebounded to a 56 percent approve/37 percent disapprove job rating. George W. Bush carried a 34 percent approve/61 percent disapprove job rating in his final days, according to Gallup.

Today, the Republicans’ problem is more than likability. The party is less trusted and fewer voters identify with it. According to a Feb. 19-22 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Americans trust Democrats, 56 percent to 30 percent, over Republicans “to do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.”

And unlike 1992, a major shift in party identification has occurred, even if it is temporary. Self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans by just 3 points (38 percent to 35 percent) in 1992 compared with a 7-point Democratic edge (39 percent to 32 percent) last fall, according to exit polling.

‘The Aftertaste of GOP Governance’

With the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress in the rearview mirror but not out of sight, it will be more difficult for Republicans to run as effectively with a reform message as they did in 1994.

“Last time, Republicans hadn’t been in control for 40 years,” explained former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who was elected to Congress in 1994 and chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee for two cycles in the majority. “There’s still the aftertaste of GOP governance.”

This cycle, Republicans face a skeptical electorate on an unfavorable playing field. Senate Republicans are defending 19 seats (including five open seats) while all 17 of the Democratic incumbents up for election are running again.

“It’s hard to get very far with that map,” one GOP strategist admitted.

In 1994, Democrats had to defend 22 seats (including six open seats) while Republicans had only 12 seats (including three opens). Republicans gained eight seats on Election Day and added a ninth when Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby switched parties the next day. With the current Senate map, Republicans are far more likely to lose seats than regain the majority.

On the House side, Republicans are lacking a couple of key advantages from 16 years ago.

In 1994, Republicans belatedly benefited from a favorable round of redistricting. In the midst of Clinton’s victory in 1992, some Democratic incumbents won re-election in districts that were drawn in an effort to defeat them, but they didn’t lose until two years later. Next year will be the end of a 10-year cycle for the current Congressional lines and many incumbents are entrenched.

Republicans also benefitted from a large number of Democratic retirements in 1994, since 22 of the 56 seats they picked up were Democratic open seats. Democrats shouldn’t have nearly that many competitive open seats this cycle, but some Republicans believe incumbency could be a greater liability.

“Are incumbents marked by a record they can’t defend?” Gingrich asked. His party defeated 34 Democratic incumbents in 1994.

But increasingly sophisticated targeting programs and get-out-the-vote operations on both sides of the aisle make it easier to insulate a race from national whims. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will work hard to make sure their incumbents are in strong financial and political shape. Many of the party’s operatives survived the last GOP wave without drowning and don’t intend to relive it.

“We’re not going to be caught napping,” one Democratic strategist said.

Focus on the Off Year

With 19 months before voters go to the polls, it’s too early to determine what the political or economic environment will be like on Election Day. But in the short term, the focus will be on the off-year and special elections. Republicans took over the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey in 1993 and have an opportunity to follow the same path this year.

But observers should be cautious in extrapolating meaning from the results of today’s special election in New York’s 20th district.

In all five House special elections in 1993, the incumbent party won, maintaining the partisan status quo. Republicans did win the Texas Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen (D) in a June 1993 special. But it wasn’t until the 1994 special elections in the House that the wave began to take shape.

When Republicans scored special election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky — and Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), a Clinton ally, was defeated in a primary by a mediocre candidate — the Democratic downturn became apparent.

“Those 1994 specials became early warning signs as to the kind of challenges we would face in open seats in the South and Midwest,” said Democratic media consultant David Dixon, who was the DCCC’s political director in 1994.

“Prior to [the early 1994 special elections], we didn’t have any hard evidence that something was happening,” Gingrich recalled. “I originally thought it would take two cycles.”

The Synar race was an early indication that Clinton was a liability in many districts. With decisions on gays in the military and gun control as well as failed health care proposals, Clinton became a rallying point for Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will become a similar lightning rod.

“If [Obama and Congressional Democrats] keep up this level of ambitious programs and spending, they could create a climate for big losses,” said GOP media consultant Curt Anderson, who was political director at the Republican National Committee during the 1994 cycle.

Thus far, Obama has been able to downplay more liberal decisions and use bipartisan rhetoric to disarm the opposition. There is clear GOP resistance to his early spending plans, but Republicans are not completely unified, as evidenced by three potential high-profile primary challenges to GOP Senators.

Republicans are optimistic because they believe Democrats have lost their unifier.

“Bush was the energy of the Democratic Party for the last eight years,” Davis said. “Now their energy source is gone.”

Gingrich added: “Democrats peaked the morning that George W. Bush left office.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on March 31, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.