Will Martin Hoke Syndrome Doom the Democrats' Hold on the House?

The gloom felt among Republicans is deep. Many seem resigned to hearing the name “Speaker Pelosi” for years. Consider: In his brief run for House minority leader, Rep. Joe Barton (R.-Tex.) set a goal of taking the House back by 2012, which some considered Pollyannaish.

But Republican fortunes in the House may prove better in the short term than many think possible. “Wave” elections, such as those of 2006, bring an inordinate number of victories for third- and fourth-tier candidates who defeat “sleeping incumbents”: those who do not react until it is too late. Witness former Rep. Melissa Hart (R.-Pa.), who had won three times in her swing district with more than 58% of the vote. According to the non-partisan Rothenberg Report, Hart was sure of another victory, and avoided campaigning in part because it interfered with drum lessons she was taking. She lost to under-funded candidate Jason Altmire by 4 points. The large number of such underdog victories that accompany wave elections leaves the winning party vulnerable to “Martin Hoke Syndrome”—the tendency for such winners to commit embarrassing gaffes.

Martin Hoke was an Ohio cell-phone magnate who defeated an ethically challenged Democratic incumbent in a swing district in 1992. While a more experienced politician would have quietly established himself in his district, Hoke immediately got “bad attention” by making crass on-camera remarks about a well-endowed female news station employee, and by commenting about fellow incoming Representatives he thought were “hot.” He lost to Dennis Kucinich in 1996.

The wave election of 1994 brought a long list of inexperienced Republicans who found themselves victimized by Martin Hoke Syndrome. These victims include Wes Cooley (exaggerated his résumé), David Funderburk (supposedly lied about not driving a vehicle involved in an accident), and Fred Heineman (commented that people who made between $300,000 and $750,000 a year were middle class). All of these Republicans swept into swing districts in 1994, and were subsequently defeated.

The Class of 2006 may fare no better. Indeed, Rep. Steve Kagan may have already made himself a victim of Martin Hoke Syndrome. Kagan, an allergist, narrowly won a district that President Bush carried twice by roughly 10 points. Kagan recently commented to a group of peace activists that he had purposely referred to First Lady Laura Bush as “Barbara” because he believed referring to a spouse by a different name is “the meanest thing you can say to another gentleman.” Kagan also bragged that he had blocked Karl Rove’s exit from a White House bathroom and declared “my name’s Dr. Multimillionaire, and I kicked your a**.”

While such comments may have played well in a solidly Democratic district, in a reddish swing district such as Wisconsin’s 8th, it generated exactly the type of negative publicity that returns freshmen to the private sector quickly. Untested Democrats in California, Iowa, Kentucky, New Hampshire and New York (among others) are exactly the type of unlikely Representatives who are potential Martin Hoke Syndrome victims.

Martin Hoke Syndrome alone will not win back Congress for Republicans, but it will buttress other factors that weigh in Republicans’ favor. Five of the nine Democrats who won due to scandals plaguing the Republican they faced will have a very hard time winning against Republicans with different names. Democrats now represent all but six of the districts carried by Sen. John Kerry by more than 2 points, and 56 districts that cast less than 51% of their votes for Kerry.

The nine incumbent Democrats who won with under 60% of the vote also find themselves in a precarious state. In 1994, of the seven incumbent Republicans who won with less than 55% of the vote, six lost over the course of the next decade. By contrast, Republicans only defeated three Democratic survivors of 1994 until the 2002 redistricting.

Almost every surge for a party is followed by a retreat; remember, in 1996 Democrats won enough seats from Republicans to take back Congress. Republicans were only saved by Democrat retirements in exceedingly vulnerable districts. It is still early, but such a counter-surge cannot be ruled out in 2008. And the Martin Hokes of the new Democratic majority may make the difference between Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner holding the speaker’s gavel in 2009.