History doesn’t really repeat itself in politics. But old tactics in a new year sometimes produce similar results.
That’s what Republicans hope for and Democrats hope to avoid this fall in national congressional elections: a repeat of 1994, when voters tossed out Democrats and handed the reins of Congress fully to Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
Is 2010 like 1994? Not exactly, say some of the people who won or lost races 16 years ago.
Both are years marked by heightened public concern about a growing national debt, worries about the direction of the nation and doubts about its leaders. Then, as now, a young and relatively inexperienced president had been in the White House less than two years, and his approval ratings were falling, in part because of proposals to reform the nation’s health care system. Conservatives and independents who didn’t have much voice in the previous presidential election were becoming more vocal in the streets.
All that combined to make 1994 one of the years when American politics experienced a tectonic shift. Similar shifts happened in 1964, 1974 and 1980 for different reasons.
But Republicans had one thing going for them in 1994 that they don’t have now, said George Nethercutt: the element of surprise.
Nethercutt may have been the biggest surprise of the 1994 election. He beat a sitting speaker of the House, something that hadn’t happened since 1860. The Republican tide, driven by a campaign based on the “Contract with America,” washed over the country, and when it receded, Republicans went from an 82-seat minority to a 26-seat majority in the House. High tide, some would argue, was in Washington state, where the House delegation switched from 8-1 Democrats to 7-2 Republicans.
“On election eve, people were saying nationally ‘This (Republican takeover) is not going to happen,’ ” Nethercutt recalled recently. “There was this feeling that there was an invincibility on the part of the Democratic majority.”
In 1994, Democrats who had controlled the House for decades seemed more out of touch with the public and had several major scandals, said Nethercutt, now a lawyer who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Spokane. This time they’ve been in control for less than four years and “seem to be forewarned and forearmed” that that could change.
Rep. Jay Inslee, who was one of the congressional Democrats ousted in 1994, agreed. “My party did some things voluntarily that ended up discouraging their voters from voting. In a sense, Democrats in Congress did not understand the depths of sentiment facing us.”
They passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which angered union members, and an assault-weapon ban, which angered Second Amendment advocates. “You’re not going to see these issues come up again,” said Inslee, who represented Central Washington’s 4th District in 1994 and represents the central Puget Sound’s 1st District now.
They also dropped the ball on health care reform, a major initiative of the new Clinton administration. This year, Democrats passed health care reform, which is farther-reaching than the ’94 proposals and may remain controversial for years, Inslee said. But Democrats have the campaign to explain its benefits while Republicans are describing its problems.
In both elections, the economy was a concern. But because Republicans controlled Congress four years ago, and the presidency through 2008, Democrats will try tying many of the nation’s problems to them and suggest voting GOP is “going backwards,” Inslee said.
The voters of 1994 were concerned about the deficit. Some Republican candidates got support from people who had voted for Ross Perot, an independent presidential hopeful who campaigned against the deficit with charts and graphs; the Texas billionaire even campaigned for Nethercutt in Spokane. This year, the Republican ranks include some supporters of 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, and some GOP candidates are campaigning against the ballooning national debt and the budgeting practice of earmarks.
Democrats will be quick to point out that the deficit grew under the GOP, which had many members who were comfortable with earmarks when their party was in power.
Del Ali, a national pollster who handled election polls for The Spokesman-Review in 1994 and is polling for national news organizations this year, said some surface similarities exist, but there are significant differences. Not a single Republican seeking re-election in 1994 lost. This year, polling shows Republicans are as unpopular as Democrats; the public sentiment may be more anti-incumbent than partisan, he said.
“Neither party’s popular,” Ali said. “There’s an anti-spending, anti-government mood.”
The nation’s demographics are also changing, with growing numbers of Latinos and other minorities. That could lead to a different result, particularly if immigration reform continues to grow as a political issue, he said.
History says the party that holds the White House loses some seats in the midterm election. But it’s too soon to tell whether Republicans can get the shift of at least 40 seats needed to gain control of the House, Ali said. “Anyone who says definitely yes or no doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”