Why Dems Won't Replicate 1994 in 2006

Republicans continue to suffer badly in opinion polls, and so it is appropriate to revisit the now-common comparison to 1994, when they wrested power from complacent Democrats who had held their House majority for too long. Is the same dynamic at work this year, and can we reasonably expect a Democratic House after the mid-term elections of 2006?

Despite continued bad news for Republicans in Congress on their failure to accomplish much in the first few months of the year, a series of electoral mishaps has dealt a serious blow to Democrats’ chances of regaining the majority. In fact, it has now become difficult to make the case that Democrats can pick up 15 seats in this election, let alone the net 15 seats they will need to claim a majority.

First, Democrats appear to be at the whim of fate with respect to the 6th District of Ohio, where their only serious candidate, by his own fault, failed to make the primary ballot. If Charlie Wilson (D) cannot, through write-ins, defeat two other unserious candidates (both of them on the ballot), then Republicans win this open seat easily. If Wilson wins but has to spend all of his money convincing voters to write in his name, Democrats may well lose the seat anyway.

In Texas, Democrats suffered a serious setback when Rep. Tom DeLay (R) dropped out. The Democratic strategy here was to turn the race into a referendum on DeLay. But with the former majority leader out of the race, the 22nd District’s inherently Republican leaning should ensure that any Republican not too close to DeLay will win.

In North Carolina, Democrats’ formidable-looking candidate Timothy Dunn suddenly dropped out of the race against Rep. Robin Hayes (R), whose swing 8th District is always a Democratic target. Hayes now likely gets a free pass.

In Pennsylvania’s 8th District, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) has raised enough money to run a respectable Senate campaign in many states, and he has a relatively moderate record to hide behind in what is a moderate suburban Republican district. His Democratic opponents, currently in a spirited primary, languish in the six-digit range behind his $1.3-million cash total.

To be sure, Democrats have several pickup opportunities this year. Among Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Connecticut, they have a realistic shot at picking up nine or 10 seats. They have just a fair chance of picking up three more in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. Even making room for a few unexpected upsets (assuming that all upsets consist of Democrats’ beating Republicans), Democrats appear to be out of range of the 19 pickups they will probably need to offset Republican pickups and end with a net gain of 15.

Of course, that does not mean that it is impossible, but it is hard to see how the political environment could get much better for Democrats than it already is. They certainly wish they could have the election next week, because they could be peaking early.

Republicans hope to avoid an election that turns into a national referendum on GOP control of Congress. The key, they claim, is for candidates to campaign on local issues in a decentralized way. This idea was a loser in 2002, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) articulated a similar strategy and her party was wiped out. But then again, other factors may have turned that election into a Republican rout, particularly terrrorism. Democrats have no such uniting issue to campaign on this time. House Democrats, perhaps on the verge of seeing two of their own indicted, may have gotten all the mileage they possibly can out of the earlier “culture of corruption” theme.

Republicans, meanwhile, will count on pork projects—particularly highway projects from last year’s transportation bill—and gerrymandering to keep their majority, despite the ill political wind in their faces. The possibility also exists that the wind will change, which could result in disappointingly small Democratic gains.

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