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Redux of 1994 Is Unlikely

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.

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