“These new people come to the Senate at a time when the economy is in trouble, jobs are being lost,” the Senator said. “As a result of that, they have been more aggressive in telling leadership, ‘Look, we’ve got to have an agenda here.’”
The Senator added of Republicans: “I think they’re in for some real difficulty. ... If a big class is coming in from the disaffected side of politics, that’s going to cause some real trouble.”
Republicans saw a large influx of new Members in 1946 and again in 1980 — both years in which Republicans won back the majority. In 1946, Republicans welcomed 17 new Members; in 1980, they welcomed 16.
“As it did in 1980, [this election] will make it easier for Republican voices to be heard in controlling the direction of the country,” Alexander said.
Senate Democrats have also seen ideological realignments: in 1932 and in the combination of the elections of 2006 and 2008. Nineteen Democrats helped the party take over the chamber in 1932; in 2006 and 2008, Democrats gained eight and 12 new Members, respectively.
“In some cases, particularly the 1932 election and the 1980 election, you’re looking at a time when the party system was undergoing great change,” Senate Associate Historian Betty Koed said in an e-mail.
She said the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 1932 “was the culmination of a trend beginning in the 1920s that changed the make-up of the Democratic party, bringing into its fold African Americans, many immigrant groups, and farmers, who had been primarily Republican before that.”
The Great Depression helped fuel the change that had been under way since 1926, Koed said.
Similarly, the 1980 election was the result of years of changes that benefited the GOP, she said.
“The victory of Ronald Reagan and congressional Republicans in the 1980 election had its roots in the 1960s, when a combination of civil rights legislation, general expansion of government programs, and a growing concern over war issues brought new voters to the Republican Party,” Koed said.
“The 1968 election shifted southern voters from the traditional Democratic stronghold in the South to the ‘solid Republican South’ of later years, a trend that became a reality with the 1980 election,” she added.
Koed noted that other issues, such as President Jimmy Carter’s struggles with the economy and the Iran hostage crisis, as well as Reagan’s charisma and political operation, contributed to the effectiveness of GOP campaigns.
Democrats said their only hope, if this year is to be another 1980, is that six years from now will bring another Democratic resurgence, as happened in 1986, when Democrats gained 11 seats.
“The conservative class of Republicans [in 1980] quickly flamed out because they were not temperamentally suited to be in the Senate,” the Democratic aide said. “The crop that may be coming in could be more conservative than that.”