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Monday, December 14, 2009

Will 2010 be a Repeat of 1994? Yes and No.

Last week I argued that the political forecast for Democrats looked pretty bleak. Less than a week later I would argue that the forecast has worsened. That said, several prominent bloggers took to the web this weekend to argue that 2010 will not present a repeat of 1994 when Republicans netted 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate to claim a majority in both houses of Congress. Writing for his Talking Points Memo Josh Marshall argues that the 1994 rout by Republicans was largely the result of the Southern realignment coupled with redistricting efforts in 1990-92 and a spate of Democratic retirements. Marshall argues "2010 is fundamentally different. The key problem for Dems isn't unpopularity. It's a highly apathetic Democratic electorate facing an extremely energized Tea Party GOP."  Marshall does not dismiss the possiblity that Democrats may lose the House or Senate, he simply veiws the comparisons to 1994 as being inappropriate. I do not disagree, but when it comes to elections, any election, comparisons to prior elections are largely inappropriate. Each election cycle takes on its own dynamic and unique set of issues and circumstances.

Asking if 2010 will be like 1994 is not the same as asking if the the same dynamics that shaped 1994 will shape 2010. In all but two midterm election cycles in the past since FDR the party in the White House has lost seats in the midterm - what made 1994 unique was the size of the loss in the House and the Senate. In the past 50 years there have been 12 midterm elections, in 10 of those races the party in the White House lost seats. In 5 of the 12 the losses in the Houses amounted to 15 or fewer seats, in 2 of the 12 the losses ranged from 26 to 30 seats (1982 and 2006), in only 3 of the 12 did the losses top 40 seats -1966 (47 seats), 1974 (49 seats), and 1994 (52 seats). In 1998 and 2002 the party in power gained seats. So the real question for 2010 is whether the Democrats will suffer losses in line with historical norms - about 15 seats - or will the party suffer the more extraordinary losses registered in 1966, 1974, and 1994?

Current political conditions suggest that 2010 will not follow the historical norm model of 15 or so seats. The latest edition of the Cook Politcal Report finds that of the 258 House seats held by Democrats 218 are considered to be safe - that is the exact number needed to maintain their majority status. Cook rates 39 Democratic seats as competitive and only 11 Republican seats. The generic Congressional ballot from multiple pollsters favors the Republicans and 4 Democratic House members have announced plans to retire. Add to all of this a president with an approval rating below 50% and you have the makings for an election year that will not be good for the Democrats. At the moment the most likely scenario is a midterm that follows the 1982 and 2006 model of 25 to 30 losses. In the Senate, the Democrats face challenges in AR, CO, CT, DE, NV, NY, OH, and PA while Republicans are fighting to keep KY, MO, and NH - a net Republican gain of 4 or 5 seems likely at this point.

So will 2010 be like 1994? The dynamics of the race will be different - but such is true of all races. With regard to shifting control of Congress 2010 also is unlikely to be like 1994.  But make no mistake, if Republicans gain 30 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate the 2010 election will be like 1994 in that it will fundamentally alter the political dynamic in Washington. The midterm vote will be viewed as a harsh assessment of the president and the Democratic majority and will result in an altered agenda leading into 2012. It will also give the GOP tremendous influence over that agenda as they reclaim the ability to filibuster in the Senate.