Victims, Beneficiaries Reflect on the GOP Takeover

Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:30pm

As any Southern California surf bum can attest, catching a wave can be a tricky thing. Sometimes you snag it just right and ride all the way to the shore. Sometimes it sneaks up from behind only to come crashing down on your head.

By most accounts, the 1994 revolution that shifted control of Congress to Republicans for the first time in 40 years was a tsunami. Nowhere was the change in the national mood more apparent than in the House, where 73 new Republicans won office for a net gain of 52 GOP seats, with 34 Democratic incumbents going down in defeat. When the final tallies washed in, Republicans held a 26-seat advantage.

More than a decade later, some Democrats sense anti-Republican disenchantment among the electorate, and polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe the country to be on the wrong track. The question of the hour is whether a similar wave, this one breaking in the Democrats’ favor, could occur in 2006.

Recently, Roll Call contacted veterans of the 1994 cycle, both Democrats who were wiped out that year and Republicans who hung 10 long enough to land in Congress, at least for one or two terms. We asked them to reflect on what it was like to be caught up in the maelstrom of the most significant Congressional upheaval in decades. While most saw some similarities between the current political climate and 1994, politicos of all stripes, it seems, disagree about whether the surf right now looks choppy or calm for the GOP majority.

Democratic Wipe-Out

For Democrats, who had ruled Congress with an iron fist for most of the 20th century, the intensity of the pro-Republican wave that wiped them out in 1994 was mostly a surprise at the time — though in retrospect, many say they should have seen it coming.

General voter frustration with then-President Bill Clinton, epitomized by his ill-fated health care plan, coupled with concerns about unified Democratic control, a steady drumbeat of ethical charges against prominent Democrats and a run of close and highly divisive floor votes on everything from the budget to gun control, combined to give the Republicans plenty of grist for the mill. Still, despite signs of brewing discontent in the months leading up to the election, most Democrats say they expected the Congressional power structure to stay largely in place.

“I didn’t know it was on us ’till it came crashing on top of our heads,” says former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.). “You try to recognize that it’s coming. I’m not sure that you can.”

Indeed, most Democrats interviewed for this article said that, as late as Election Day, they still believed they would win despite the challenging political climate. Then-Rep. Peter Hoagland, a three-term Nebraska Democrat, recalls that “I thought I’d probably win because I always had” — even though polls taken after the May GOP primary showed him already trailing his opponent, future Rep. Jon Christensen (R).

“It was the Zeitgeist — the spirit of the times,” says Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio). Strickland, who lost in 1994 but would retake his seat the following cycle after spending two years as an aggressive “shadow Congressman,” adds that despite sensing growing national anger, it wasn’t until a week before the election that he realized he was “in trouble.”

“It was something you feel more than you understand rationally or intellectually,” he says. Strickland puts much of the blame for his loss on an “inartful” response to a debate question that his opponent then turned into a late-breaking ad. “The Democrats were in fact perceived to be drunk with power,” he concedes, adding: “The Republicans are totally intoxicated at this point.”

Once the tide turned against them nationally, Democrats — even those who had campaigned aggressively — found themselves losing by the scores, even if the outcomes were close.

“It was pretty grim,” says Hoagland, who lost by less than 2,000 votes to political neophyte Christensen in one of the ugliest campaigns of that cycle. “There were just scores of me.”

Margolies-Mezvinsky’s defeat in her rematch with Jon Fox (R) in 1994 was foreshadowed the previous year by Republicans, who waved and chanted goodbye to her on the chamber floor after she provided (under pressure) the crucial one-vote margin of victory for Clinton’s 1993 budget (she first said she would vote against it). Margolies-Mezvinsky concedes that she handed her eventual opponent an easy theme to campaign on in her suburban Philadelphia district.

“It raised taxes on 1.2 percent of the population and they all lived in my district,” she says, noting that her district was allegedly the 14th wealthiest in the country at the time. “I would have loved to run the campaign against me,” adds Margolies-Mezvinsky, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and also heads up Women’s Campaign International, which seeks to promote women in politics globally.

For most, however, it was not “any one particular thing,” says former Rep. Buddy Darden (D-Ga.), who was unseated after five full terms by the outspokenly conservative (and libertarian) Bob Barr (R). “Overall it was just dissatisfaction with the Democrats.”

“There was a lot of anger in 1990 and 1992,” adds Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who would also lose his seat in 1994 before winning it back two years later. But “in 1994 people knew who to blame,” he notes, pointing to the Democratic control of both the White House and Congress.

In Price’s Research Triangle district during the height of the 1994 campaign, town meetings became “very raucous,” he recalls. “People were so abusive and angry” that law enforcement had to be present.

In most years, Price says, his constituents “were focused on issues like education and the economy.” But suddenly, crime became the No. 1 issue, even though it was declining, he says — “and I was running against a police chief.”

Though he still thought he could win, “I was running scared,” the political scientist admits. “There are juggernauts, and then there are juggernauts.”

Catching the Wave

The Republicans interviewed for this story say they were just as clueless as their Democratic rivals about the degree to which the political winds would shift in their favor that year.

“I don’t think we fully — individually or collectively — appreciated the extent to which it was a wave,” says former Rep. Jim Longley Jr. (R-Maine), who seized a Democratic-leaning open seat.

“It was the hand of God that swept me in there,” says former Rep. Fred Heineman (R-N.C.), the former Raleigh police chief who ousted Price. “I think the daily paper characterized my win as a shocker.”

Ex-Rep. Rick White, a two-term Republican from Washington, says his first indication that the momentum might favor the GOP that year was what he heard in the media’s tone. “The coverage was a little more favorable than [Republicans] usually got,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s a little unusual.’”

Republicans said their motivation to run in 1994 was rooted in a deep-seated sense of disgust with what they considered a bloated federal government with increasingly long tentacles.

But among these former GOP Members, there is disagreement about whether the wave was rooted in support for the House Republican leadership’s far-reaching agenda to reform the federal government, as embodied by the “Contract With America,” or whether it simply sprung from fatigue with the Democratic Party.

“There was a strong sense in my district that it was important to get a more balanced budget … and driving that message home were the Republicans at the national level,” says former Rep. Bill Martini (R-N.J.), who narrowly defeated then-Rep. Herb Klein (D) that year.

Michael Flanagan (R-Ill.), who toppled indicted House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D), says the Republican momentum in 1994 had little to do with the party’s leadership.

“I don’t think many voters in my district were saying, ‘I like that Newt Gingrich, I like that Dick Armey, I like that Bob Walker, and therefore I’m going to vote for Flanagan,’” he asserts. “The party did not believe Rosty was beatable until the very end.”

Although many winners that year were political neophytes, most felt they were prepared to govern once they were ushered into Congress.

“You adapt very quickly,” says Longley, a Persian Gulf War veteran who now works as a defense and intelligence policy analyst. Longley says he was as prepared as one can ever be “to drink from a firehose.”

And drink from a firehose they did.

New Members encountered a frenetic environment. The relentless schedule (the 104th Congress saw more than 1,300 votes) led to pulled achilles tendons and all-night and weekend sessions.

“We weren’t so pro-family with our schedule,” recalls Fox, a Pennsylvania attorney who served in Congress from 1995 to 1999. “I think a good percentage of my class got divorced.”

And although the intense activity allowed the House Republican leadership to pass most of the legislative components of its Contract With America within the first 100 days, it also contributed to political myopia in other respects, according to some of these former Members. This led to accusations of GOP overreach, which crystallized in the winter 1995 shutdown of the federal government.

“Frankly, as a group, I think we got a little too caught up in ourselves,” Longley says. “We ended up making people as nervous as Clinton had made people.”

In fact, Longley was so concerned by the effects of the budget shutdown, which hit several federal installations in his district hard, that he went to see then-Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) on a snowy day in early January 1996 along with Virginia Republican Reps. Frank Wolf and Tom Davis to discuss budget strategy.

“I think he was very responsive to our concerns” about the impact the shutdown was having on federal employees, Longley says. “We needed to convey a more moderate tone … and frankly, I think we dropped the ball. … We played into [the Democrats’] hands in my district.”

Flanagan said that amid all the activity of the 104th Congress, Republicans “didn’t have time to sell” some of the more controversial aspects of their agenda, such as Medicare and welfare reform. “We were busy reforming the universe.”

That ultimately hurt Flanagan when he was up for re-election in 1996. When Democrats successfully portrayed Republican efforts to cap the growth rate of Medicare as an attempt to cut the program, it helped put an end to Flanagan’s Congressional career. He now runs his own political consulting firm.

“I had an ancient district,” he says. “‘Mediscare’ was absolutely the end of the world.”

He wasn’t the only one. When the national mood calmed down in subsequent cycles, many Republicans were swept away after just one or two terms.

Heineman, who is currently looking to publish a memoir, “From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress,” was “outgunned and outraised” by Price and ended up in the hospital for three weeks at the height of the 1996 election.

Longley would fall to current Rep., and former Portland Mayor, Tom Allen (D-Maine).

Martini, Flanagan and Fox would in part be victims of unfavorable demographics. Meanwhile, White blames a confluence of factors, from a divorce prior to the campaign to the entrance of a conservative third-party candidate into the race, for his 1998 defeat.

“I thought my third term was going to be my big triumphant term, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says White, who recently decided against a bid for Senate. “I was swept out when the Republicans weren’t quite so popular.”

Still, some of these Republicans were upbeat about their short Congressional tenures.

“In many ways, we did more in one term than Congressmen who had served two, three or four terms,” Martini says.

For others, the experience left a bad taste in their mouth.

Then-Rep. David Funderburk (R-N.C.), a one-time U.S. ambassador to Romania, would get into a controversial 1995 car accident that forced another vehicle off the road and injured three people. Funderburk says he was unjustly accused of misrepresenting who was driving his car. (He and his wife said she was, contrary to witnesses who said he’d switched places with his wife after the accident. Funderburk later pleaded no contest to crossing the center line.)

Funderburk attributes his 1996 loss in large part to the controversy over the car accident, which his opponent now-Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) turned into an ad toward the end of the campaign. Funderburk says that after the defeat he was “very demoralized and depressed about the process.”

“I had hoped that justice would come, and the truth would out,” says Funderburk, now a professor, lobbyist and honorary consul general of Albania, based in North Carolina. “That never really happened.”

Now as Funderburk surveys his former Republican colleagues who have stayed on, he sees many of them falling victim to the same temptations for which the revolutionary 1994 class once attacked Democrats.

“In some ways a lot of them … have gotten caught up in the idea that just maintaining power is more important than making these changes,” he says. “They did not carry through in terms of either cutting certain parts of the bureaucracy or cutting out programs they thought were not really representative of the public in general.”

Looking Ahead

On the question of whether 2006 will bring a similar tidal wave benefiting the minority, both Democrats and Republicans from 1994 are divided.

At first glance, many of the characteristics of the 1994 cycle are once again in place: unified party control of the White House and Congress, accusations of ethical violations by key party figures, and dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of major policy issues (especially Iraq and Social Security).

Still, none of these former Members was ready to say definitively that the Democrats were positioned for a sweep.

“My guess is something pretty dramatic, such as overturning Roe v. Wade, has to happen to solidify us,” says Margolies-Mezvinsky, adding that although the “winds are blowing in the right direction … I’m not sure I see this on this horizon.”

Darden, meanwhile, points to the recent number of close Congressional votes on key issues as emblematic of future trouble for the GOP.

“We were criticized for having to hold the vote open a couple of times and a few Members changing votes,” he recalls. “I’ve noticed that’s happened several times in this Congress, too. That doesn’t bode well in my opinion for the party in power.”

Flanagan says that the GOP-controlled Congress’ tolerance for ballooning budget deficits could benefit Democrats.

“If they make this about money, they’ve got a shot,” he says of the Democrats, though he believes that the chances are slim.

Others questioned whether a wave on the scale of 1994 is even possible today, given the handful of truly competitive districts left after years of strategic redistricting.

“The number of competitive districts is smaller and smaller. This gives the Democrats fewer and fewer opportunities to have an overwhelming challenge like the Republicans did,” Funderburk says.

And although some Republicans conceded that conditions appear to favor Democrats, most concluded that the minority party is unlikely to make major gains.

“I’ve yet to see any coherent strategy or message from the Democrats,” Longley says. “What’s their alternative?”