1994 Republican Rout Is Casting Shadow in 2010
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and MARJORIE CONNELLY
Published: April 11, 2010
WASHINGTON — The year was 1994. Congressional Democrats were battered after a failed fight to pass a health care bill. It was the first midterm election for a new Democratic president, Bill Clinton. By overwhelming numbers, Americans thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, had unfavorable views of the president and Congress, and said it was time for new leadership in Washington.
Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press
Newt Gingrich, the leader of the 1994 Republican takeover, said there were “a lot of vague parallels” in this election season.
The latest on President Obama, his administration and other news from Washington and around the nation. Join the discussion.
Mike Theiler/European Pressphoto Agency
Before the health care debate last month, Representative Phil Gingrey held up a flier listing 25 Democrats who lost races in 1994.
That fall, Republicans swept to power, capturing 9 seats in the Senate and 52 in the House.
“There are a lot of vague parallels,” said Newt Gingrich, the Republican leader who oversaw the takeover in 1994 and now proclaims himself “moderately optimistic” that Republicans can again win the House, at least.
In many ways, the 1994 election has become the template both Republicans and Democrats are looking to as they set their strategies for the fall Congressional elections. Democratic campaign operatives, who are girding for big losses, began meeting quietly with party strategists involved in the 1994 contests last summer, looking for lessons on how to avoid another rout.
Yet 1994 seems an imprecise way to predict how this contest will play out. While there are intriguing parallels, there are some important differences as well. And though Democrats might look to those differences as glimmers of light — “There are so many things different from ’94 that I think this will turn out very differently,” said Stanley Greenberg, who was the White House pollster in 1994 — the divergences seem as likely to benefit Republicans as Democrats, analysts in both parties said.
Further, it seems too early to measure the effect of what is perhaps the biggest difference between the two cycles — that Democrats this time succeeded in passing a major health care bill.
For Democrats, the biggest obstacle appears to be that they are once again working in the kind of environment that has historically proved toxic to the party in power. Mr. Obama’s favorability ratings, like Mr. Clinton’s in 1994, have slipped below 50 percent, almost invariably a bad harbinger for the party in power in midterm elections. Congress and the Democratic Party are today extremely unpopular, as they were in 1994.
“Obama has done the same kind of overreach that Clinton did back then with the tax increases and the crime bill,” said Joe Gaylord, the Gingrich adviser who directed the 1994 takeover strategy, and who is now advising Mr. Gingrich on a potential presidential run.
“I was just looking at some survey data this morning, and in every area now — from health care to education to balancing the budget to foreign policy — the Republicans have a lead over Democrats, policywise,” Mr. Gaylord said. “That makes it very much like 1994.”
And in some ways, Republicans seem even better positioned than they were in 1994. Republican voters appear highly energized by the health care bill, and that kind of voter interest typically results in significant turnout in a midterm election.
Many experts have predicted big gains for Republicans — even some Democrats say Republicans might win 40 seats and thus control of the House — making it easier for the Republican Party to recruit candidates who might otherwise have stood aside. It could also make it easier for the party to raise money and enliven supporters.
“Remember, because we hadn’t won control in 40 years, nobody believed us,” Mr. Gingrich said. “By contrast, there’s a pretty wide general agreement that we are going to come out of this somewhere between plus-25 and a majority. That’s a very different world.”
Yet Democrats have many reasons to compare the two elections and find hope. The flip side to what Mr. Gingrich said is that Democrats, remembering 1994, will not be surprised this time. They have aggressively warned incumbents against being overly confident, pressing them to raise money now and begin attacking prospective opponents.
“It is no shock that this is going to be a hard cycle,” said Jon Vogel, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “People didn’t know that until late 1994; they ended their campaigns with money in the bank.”
In 1994, Mr. Gaylord said, “there weren’t four people in America who thought we were going to win control of the House on Election Day.” He added: “Now we’ve been talking about this since last November. What this does is allows incumbents to build up lots of dough and try to reposition themselves.”
Moreover, the Republican Party has a different image than it did in 1994. At that time, Republicans had been out of control of Congress for long enough that they were able to present themselves as the party of change. They were viewed unfavorably by just 39 percent of Americans. By contrast, 57 percent said in February that they had an unfavorable view of Republicans in a New York Times/CBS News poll.
White House officials argued that the anger this time was more generalized. “This year is different because the ire is aimed at Washington, not just one party,” said David Axelrod, a senior political adviser to Mr. Obama.
And if Republicans have been energized by their opposition to the health care bill, the White House believes that will be matched by the reaction of Democratic voters to the bill’s passage. Democrats have been pushing Republicans to take a position on repealing the health care bill amid polling evidence that that is a surefire way of exciting Democratic base voters.
“I think health care is a very big deal, both the bill itself, but also because it shows the ability of Democrats to deliver on their promises and get things done,” said Mr. Greenberg, the former White House pollster.
Democrats also have fewer seats to defend. In 1994, Democrats had 28 retirements, putting many districts on the table that otherwise would have been safe. Last week, Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan announced that he would not seek re-election, pushing the number of Democrats who are retiring this year to 20, equal to the number of Republicans who are retiring. The number is still relatively low, though not as low as Democrats would have liked.
Perhaps more significant, in 1994 Democrats headed into the fall campaign after passing a crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons. The bill led to a backlash among independent voters, particularly in the South, which many Democrats argue was as much a factor in Democratic setbacks as the health care debacle.
That is one lesson from 1994 that Congressional Democrats will remember as they wind up their business in Washington and prepare for the fall campaigns.
Adam Nagourney reported from Washington, and Marjorie Connelly from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 12, 2010, on page A18 of the New York edition.