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Redux of 1994 Is Unlikely

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.”

Correction: March 31, 2009

The article misstated the number of Senate seats that Republicans gained in the 1994 elections.

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