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Past as Prologue: 2006 Cycle Bears Similarities to 1994

The year 1994 was a watershed for Congress. It is when Republicans took back the House after 40 years of Democratic majorities. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the early 1990s, I had a bird’s-eye view of that fateful election campaign.

Many people remember 1994 as the year of the Republicans’ “Contract with America,” but it was put out only weeks before the election. Putting aside the populist message of the Contract and the continuing differences between the parties on social issues, there were three substantive concerns affecting that particular campaign, all of which contributed to creating a “perfect storm” and eventual shift in power:

• The House failed to even bring to the floor a viable plan to provide basic health care to all Americans — despite a high-profile campaign by the Clinton administration. While certain Republicans and advertising hired-guns created a great deal of misinformation about a new bureaucracy that would be impossible to control or afford, the Democratic base was offended because its own party couldn’t facilitate Clinton’s most important initiative.

• Congress produced an essential deficit reduction plan that contained no broad-based tax increases, except, notably, a 4.3 cents-per-gallon gas tax. While the plan went a long way toward reducing the deficit and balancing the budget, we Democrats allowed Republicans to use the tax increase effectively against us during the ’94 campaign. Ironically, while Republicans used this gas tax to their advantage, they have yet to repeal the tax and recently enjoyed earmarking hundreds of highway projects with the proceeds. Since the economic boom of the later 1990s (an outgrowth of Democratic deficit reduction efforts) had yet to occur, the old adage “in politics, no good deed goes unpunished” prevailed.

• Finally, there was the proposed crime bill, which, among other things, banned automatic assault weapons. The National Rifle Association ferociously opposed this and made an effective case to voters in rural districts against Democrats who voted to allow the issue to even come to the floor. Many moderate/conservative Democrats were never able to recover from the increasingly negative response they received from Second Amendment supporters. Once again, the generally positive effect of the broader crime bill was yet to be felt.

In addition, events surrounding the House Bank and Post Office did little to help the Democrats avoid the charge of “corruption.” Republicans were able to connect with the Perot voters who were still searching for a reform movement after their candidate’s loss in the 1992 election. And, at the same time, Republicans, under the leadership of then-Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), raised a record amount of funds in the 1994 campaign cycle to help challengers in many suddenly competitive races.

But what is past may also be prologue. There are strong similarities between 1994 and 2006: A general economic malaise surrounding soaring gas prices and lagging wages and a real estate bubble thought to be on the verge of bursting have brought about presidential approval ratings that are lower than those of the Clinton White House in 1994. In addition, in much the same way the proposed crime bill exposed Democrats in 1994, the Terri Schiavo case and stem-cell research are two issues that illustrate how out of touch the current Congressional majority is with most Americans. And Americans are again seeing stories of investigations regarding the ethics of those who control the power in Washington.

House Democrats are looking to gain electoral advantage from the highly negative political environment the majority is confronting. In order to take advantage of opportunities, Democratic Members must make sure the DCCC is well funded so that it can have a real impact in races where it will matter. The successful Republican effort in 1994 demonstrates how important this can be.

Equally important is finding common ground on the issues and message that will impact swing voters in marginal districts held by Republicans. The party has to speak to concerns that have broad appeal in ways that reassure potential supporters that Democrats share their values on matters of importance to all Americans.

Democratic candidates have to make the case that Republicans, entering the historically difficult second midterm election of a two-term president, have lost their way. If the average American voter finds the majority out of touch with his or her most pressing concerns — the growing cost of health care, the lack of progress in educating our kids, and the increasingly threatened pension and Social Security systems — that person will vote for the Democratic alternatives.

Polls show that many Americans believe the conduct of the war in Iraq has been mismanaged and there is no positive outcome in sight. For many voters, the administration’s discussion of Social Security reform has been a disastrous blind alley that has weakened public confidence in Republicans on other domestic issues. And, as was the case in 1994, Congressional ethics are likely to be the subject of only greater media focus throughout the coming year. Democrats have an opportunity to go on the offensive and take over the role as the party of reform, if they are willing to take the approach used against them in 1994.

For the past 12 years, despite several close calls, Congressional Democrats have remained in the wilderness, but now they have a great opportunity to emerge. With lawmakers’ re-elect numbers in the low to mid 40s, it is reminiscent of the 1994 cycle. Despite an incumbent-driven round of redistricting and the highly successful Republican money machinery, a Democratic majority is within reach. It’s up to the Democrats to seize the moment.

Former Rep. Victor H. Fazio (D-Calif.) is a senior adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.