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Echoes of 1994 Are Not So Loud Yet

With the approval ratings of President Bush and Congress plummeting, both parties are treading lightly around handicapping their electoral prospects in next year’s midterm elections. But the “six-year itch” looms large on a House battleground that history dictates should favor Democrats.

Any hints that the party could be poised to gain seats in 2006, and to what magnitude, remains a political lifetime away. That fact, at least, Republican and Democratic strategists can agree on.

After all, the GOP tidal wave that washed over the House in 1994 didn’t even begin to manifest itself before early summer of that year. When all was said and done, Republicans picked up 56 seats and were in control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years.

It is possible that another partisan wave could develop in 2006 — and some Democrats suggest there are real similarities between the current environment for the GOP-controlled Congress and the country’s mood in 1993.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is careful not to draw any specific comparisons to 1994. But he also is upbeat about the polling data he’s seen and the early foundation Democrats have laid for gaining ground next year.

“There’s no doubt, given context, given environment, given recruitment, given all that, I’d rather be us than them right now,” he said.

In a recent interview, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) conceded that he’d like to see current GOP poll numbers higher. But the two-term NRCC chairman maintains that a 1994 repeat is unlikely, and he is confident that the GOP will hold the House next year.

“While I can’t tell you what the end count [will be] from the 232 we have now, my message to the Conference is, ‘We will be in the majority,’” Reynolds said. “The size of it depends on their discipline. First, of staying here. Second, taking care of themselves and, third, helping challengers and [those in] tough seats and open seats get ready for an election.”

‘Stay … and Enjoy It’

As the re-election rate for House Members has inched higher in recent years, the importance of open-seat races is not lost on either party in the battle for control of the House.

Of the 52 open seats in 1994, Republicans ultimately picked up 22 of the 31 that had been held by Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats were able to win just four of the 21 Republican-held seats that had been vacated.

In recent cycles, however, both parties have been able to keep retirements to relatively minimal levels. And this cycle, at least so far, is no different. As of this month, there are 17 seats that are either open or likely to be open in 2006. Republicans are defending 11 of those, while Democrats are defending six (including one Independent-held seat in Vermont).

Of those districts, only three are truly competitive. Republicans are defending Iowa’s 1st district and Colorado’s 7th district, both of which favor Democrats, and Democrats are defending the GOP-friendly territory in Ohio’s 6th district.

Beyond those seats, Democrats have a handful of more challenging opportunities to pick up open seats in places like Wisconsin’s 8th district, Minnesota’s 6th district, Illinois’ 6th district and Florida’s 13th district.

There are currently more open seats than there were at this same point in the 1994 cycle. As of Sept. 20, 1993, only 12 incumbents had announced they were retiring or running for other office. It wasn’t until the spring of 1994 that the floodgates opened and dozens more Members, proportionally more of them Democrats, decided to call it quits.

That same scenario seems unlikely to be repeated next year, primarily because the leadership of both parties has increased pressure on Members to decide their re-election plans before the start of the election year.

While Reynolds acknowledges that there may still be a few surprise retirement announcements to come out of the GOP ranks this cycle, he is confident that his pitch to Members contemplating an exit has paid dividends.

“We have continued to work at this point to minimize retirements,” he said. “We also have reminded my colleagues, ‘You’ve got a Republican president, a Republican Senate and a Republican House. Most of you would wish for a lifetime that you’d have that opportunity to serve under that condition. Stay a couple of terms and enjoy it.’”

50 Seats in Play?

Even if Democrats are able to pull off a number of open-seat surprises, that alone won’t be enough to make up their 15-seat deficit — though that is far fewer than the 42 seats Republicans needed to win the majority in 1994.

To take back the House in 2006, Democrats must generate almost twice the number of competitive challenger races than have emerged in recent years.

For the past two cycles Democrats have unsuccessfully sought to expand the playing field of competitive seats from 25 or so, and Republicans like Reynolds shrug off the possibility that they can do so this time.

But Emanuel has been aggressively recruiting Democratic challengers and the fruits of that labor, he contends, are only now beginning to be realized.

According to the DCCC chairman, the party has 40 top-tier candidates who have either already filed or are expected to file soon. He estimates there are another 15 or 20 prospective challengers whom the party is working to recruit.

“We’ve got to get a good chunk out of that,” Emanuel said. “My goal is to get 50 races, and I feel comfortable we’re going to get to the 50 of races that we can put in play with active good running campaigns.”

Last month, the committee scored at least one recruiting victory when Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer (D) announced that he will challenge Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) next year. At the same time, the party suffered a major setback when former Pennsylvania Treasurer Barbara Hafer (D) announced that she would not run against Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

Among Democrats’ top targets are a handful of Members who have ethical or personal issues that could make them vulnerable, including Ney, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.).

Still, the culture of corruption charges that Democrats are seeking to lob at the GOP-controlled Congress appear to be a far cry from the ethical cloud that shadowed the 1994 elections, when many Congressional Democrats were still reeling from the House Bank and Post Office scandals of the early 1990s. In fact, several ethically challenged Members opted to retire in 1994 rather than seek re-election.

Democrats also have a number of challengers who are seeking rematches in 2006. In fact, two of the party’s top targets, Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.), face rematches with candidates they defeated in 2004.

Both parties have seen successes with repeat candidates in recent years, such as Sodrel and Reps. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and John Kline (R-Minn.).

By the fall of 1993, several rematches from the 1992 cycle were already well under way. Although some races never materialized, mostly due to retirements, several incumbents in 1994 lost their seats to people they had previously defeated.

Early evidence also indicates that Democrats are looking at unconventional targets in their effort to cast a wider net. There is much less talk this cycle about beating incumbents such as Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.), a perennial target who continues to win re-election, and new discussion of going after Members such as Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who hasn’t faced a competitive race in more than a decade.

Throw the Bums Out?

“People may hate Congress, but they love their Congressman,” Reynolds said, expressing his belief that Democrats will face difficulty building anti-incumbent momentum. “So incumbents win re-election and to beat them you have to provide voters with specific reasons not to elect that particular Member. Voting Democrat won’t be reason enough to vote against the Republicans.”

Emanuel, a former administration official for President Bill Clinton, called that a surface assessment of the electorate’s current political mood.

“That was also the little blankie we slept with when we were in the White House, too,” he countered.

Emanuel contends that the district-by-district polling he has seen has shown that voters’ attitudes reflect “an environment of change,” and that while people may like their Representative, they are increasingly receptive to an alternative. Similarly, polling in early 1993 showed that voters liked their Representative despite low approval ratings for Congress as a whole.

“That’s a very thin surface, because underneath they have very well entrenched Republican incumbents with very low, extremely low re-elects — down in the low 30s across the board in geographic and demographic groups,” he said.

Reynolds, however, points to generic ballot polling showing that neither party has a distinct advantage when respondents are asked whom they would prefer to control Congress.

He cites a Fox News poll taken late last month where 38 percent of respondents said they’d like to see Democrats win next year’s Congressional elections, while 35 percent said they’d rather see the GOP win.

But one only has to look at the past three election cycles for evidence that defeating incumbents is a much more difficult task than it was a decade ago when the president’s party lost ground.

In 1994, 34 incumbents were defeated in the general election. Moreover, between 1992 and 1996 a total of 79 Members lost re-election (not including primary losses). In the four elections since then just 27 Members have been defeated (and of those, six lost Member-versus-Member contests created by redistricting).

In 2004, just three incumbents were defeated for re-election outside of Texas, where a mid-decade redistricting plan jeopardized a half-dozen Democrats.

Another factor in the 1994 Republican tidal wave was the fact that the largest class of House freshmen since World War II were seeking re-election, and many of them were Democrats who rode Clinton’s 1992 coattails to narrow victories. Freshmen accounted for 16 of the 34 incumbents who lost in 1994.

In 2006, only about a half-dozen GOP freshmen are expected to make the Democrats’ target list.

Where Are All the Competitive Seats?

Next year’s election will be the third since Congressional reapportionment and the redrawing of district lines that took place following the 2000 Census.

Pombo’s district is just one of dozens across the country that exemplify the role that redistricting has had in diminishing the Congressional playing field in the past decade.

A cattle rancher from the Central Valley, Pombo represented what was considered a classic swing seat for much of the 1990s. Although the area was trending Republican, Clinton won narrow victories there in 1992 and 1996. But in 2000, Bush won 50 percent to 47 percent over Al Gore.

When district lines were redrawn after the 2000 Census, Bush’s margin in the reconfigured seat increased to 53 percent, as the Democratic-controlled state Legislature penned new lines to shore up seats for incumbents.

Redistricting has increasingly become an incumbent protection tool. And there is little dispute that Republicans emerged from the last round of remapping with the upper hand, making historic gains since then.

There is indisputable evidence that redistricting has shrunk the playing field of competitive districts.

In 1992, 103 Congressional districts split their ticket between the party of their presidential choice and the party of their incumbent Representative. In last year’s White House contest, there were only 53 districts that split in the same way. Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) essentially tied in five districts.

Show Me the Money

Even if a national wave favoring Democrats does begin to take shape next year, Reynolds and other Republicans routinely hammer home their contention that Democrats are not financially positioned to ride it.

“National message is tough to launch and it is very expensive to buy,” Reynolds said. “They’d have to wait for a tidal wave to generate itself and then ride on that with what dollars they have to make a national message. That, I just don’t see happening.”

While the NRCC leads all four Congressional campaign committees in money raised and cash on hand this cycle, the DCCC is still $3.3 million in debt from the previous cycle. As of July 31, the NRCC showed $17.5 million in its bank account, while the DCCC had $8.2 million.

Emanuel brushes the Republican analysis aside. Instead, he remains focused on executing a strategy and letting external factors take care of themselves.

“I think this is a year of growth,” Emanuel said. “We have a strategy in place, which I call the three Rs: recruit, raise money and rapid response. We’re operating those. We don’t have an impact on the larger context.”