Legislative battles aside, could that electoral history really repeat itself? As we head toward 2010, the first thing to look at is how the Democrats' majority is set up around the country – and by comparison to 1994, there are important parallels, but also very important differences.
By now we certainly know from the House Democrats' internal debates that their majority is not monolithic –all summer we watched "blue dog" Democrats, liberals, and moderate Democrats from around the country look to find common ground. That same diversity is also important to consider as we assess 2010 – it is the result of a somewhat different coalition than existed in 1994.
There are important differences from 1993-94, probably in the Democrats' favor this time, including:
• The Democrats majority is spread-out around the country: it doesn't overly depend on a sole region, so it's harder to for it to fall prey to a regional trend.
• There is, so far, no wide-scale wave of retirements of Democrats leaving behind "open" seats, which are always tougher to defend. There were a lot in 1994.
• There's no recent redistricting of boundaries to throw wild-cards into the mix, and the gains that Democrats have since made among key groups of the electorate (such as independents and upper-income voters) haven't yet been reversed at the ballot box.
But there are some historical trends that could suggest Democratic loses - though not necessarily a loss of the majority - in 2010:
• Democrats have a winning streak going, coming off especially two favorable years in '06 and '08 – and such streaks are historically is tough to sustain, especially for a sitting president's party. In general, a president's party historically loses seats (though not necessarily its majority) in mid-term elections.
• Democrats hold not just a majority but a large majority of seats -- and such sizeable advantages are historically is hard to hold; things tend to swing back closer to parity.
• The Democrats have plenty of freshman (typically, the most vulnerable type of member) sitting in GOP-leaning districts.
There's a historically large "overexposure" for Democrats in 2010. In a near reprise of the 1994 political environment, Democrats now control 59 percent of the seats occupied by the two major parties in the House, and had almost the same 59 percent controlling percentage in 1994. (And back then, it was despite winning only 52.5 percent of the major-party vote nationwide in the prior 1992 House elections, and 50.8 percent of the total vote.)
We can push the historical comparison further back, in terms of the size of the seat majority, to look at 1930 when the GOP took heavy loses, it was substantially "overexposed", controlling a substantial number of districts imbued with Democratic majorities, and an overall 104 seat majority.
Democrats now hold a large number of districts – 49 – carried by John McCain in 2008. Many of these seats are located in rural, small town, southern, and border districts where Republicans are still strong. In a disadvantage for the Democrats, there are comparably fewer, 35, Republicans representing districts won by Barack Obama.
But this setup literally comes with the territory. In building a large majority, it's almost inevitable a party will have to pick up some tougher districts along the way – and as in any battle map, holding unfriendly territory is as critical as it is difficult.
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History and Winning Streaks
However that comparative context isn't perfect, since the Republicans controlled the presidency, with President Eisenhower, during that entire period in the '50s and once again a Republican (Herbert Hoover) was President as the Republican power loss began in 1930.
Beyond bucking the "three-straight" historical difficulty, the Democrats also face the fact that a sitting president's party usually loses seats in midterm elections. The most recent, rare example of a president's party going against that rule is not long ago, in 2002, when George W. Bush and the Republicans did it.
That year the GOP scored a seven seat net gain. However the context -- an election soon after redistricting, and the 9/11 attacks -- may be a different backdrop than 2010 will offer.
First-term representatives are often the most vulnerable members, as they haven't yet established a long voting history – and particularly those in districts that usually vote for the opposing party. (This year, health care may end up being their defining moment, so a lot could hinge on whether they can find a position that makes their constituents happy.)
Forty-nine Democrats hold seats in districts carried by John McCain in 2008, and that list contains 13 freshmen who are likely to face serious challenges in 2010. There are at least 24 more freshmen and sophomore Democrats in districts where they may be pushed hard by challengers next year.
Recently Democrats have done well in such races. Of the 30 freshmen Democrats first elected in 2006, 27 won again in 2008 -- a far better record than many anticipated going into the 2008 elections. (Another five to 10 veteran Democrats, many of whom represent districts won by McCain, George Bush, or both also face challenges in 2010. More on this in part two of this series.)
Here's why it matters: incumbency is such a powerful force in Congressional elections; and Democratic members of Congress have been reelected more than 95 percent of the time since 1994. Moreover, setting aside losses due that can probably be pinned on redistricting changes, just 10 Democratic incumbents have been defeated during the 1996 to 2008 period.
Once a House member survives an initial re-election bid, the ability to raise money, offer constituent service and build familiarity with voters often means they often are able to hold the seat for subsequent elections. When incumbents don't run, the party loses that personal-based edge, and open seats are historically harder to hold.
When 34 Democratic incumbents were defeated in 1994, the high level of open seats that year was a strong factor in the GOP's gains. Overall, Democrats lost 22 of 28 open seats in 1994, and then another 10 went to the GOP in 1996, despite the Democrats having a modest gain overall that year. The Republicans had a net gain of 52 seats in '94, but still lost four open seat races themselves - even as every Republican incumbent was winning reelection. Bottom line: incumbent reelection rates exceed 95 percent, but in recent elections more than 40 percent of marginal open seats are typically won by the opposition party.
And of course, where the open seats are is critical. In 1994, 50 Democrats who represented districts that had been carried by President George H.W. Bush two years prior faced reelection or retired. Twenty-six of those 50 districts were won by the Republicans in 1994.
As further examples of the power of open seat numbers, note that open seats did play a critical role in getting the Democrats to the majority they have today. Of the 36 House retirements in 2008, 28 were Republicans, helping fuel the GOP's subsequent net loss of 12 open seats. In 2006, 16 of 27 retirements were also taken by the Republicans, fueling a loss of eight open seats. Combined with the special election open seats in 2007, Republicans lost a sizeable 22 open seats over only two election cycles.
Further mitigating the potential for open seats to cut into Democrats' majority, heading into 2010, two Republican incumbents have vacated districts (the Illinois 10th, the Chicago suburbs, and Pennsylvania 6th, outside Philly) that are, based on the past party voting patterns, likely to favor a Democratic contender next year.
4762464The Democrats in 2010 will defend a majority that's relatively spread out around the country and that could insulate them somewhat if a regional (rather than national) trend emerges. And dovetailing with the open seat numbers, unlike 1994 there isn't a single region where Democrats are poised to face an especially tough fight.
Democrats dominate the eastern region of the U.S. and in particular New England, where they've won five seats in the last two elections, and mid-Atlantic states going into 2010; Connecticut Republican Chris Shays' 2008 defeat represented the last Republican member of Congress in New England. Similarly, Republicans' ranks have thinned in New York and Pennsylvania (Republicans lost six seats in New York and five in Pennsylvania in the 2006 and 2008 elections).
But importantly, that region doesn't supply all of the Democrats' majority; only 68 of 257 (26 percent) Democratic members of Congress represent mid-Atlantic and New England districts.
Today, by comparison, the South supplies a greater share of the GOP's seats: 88 of 178 of Republican members of Congress represent southern and border districts. When the plains states are included the total is 96 (exceeding half the GOP House membership) and if the western plains states of Idaho, Utah, Montana and Wyoming are included that rises to 101 of 178 Republican seats.
In addition to the 68 Democratic members from the mid Atlantic and New England regions, their membership also includes 75 southern and border state members, 50 in the Midwest and 63 in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountains. So Democrats hold a majority in the East, Midwest, and West and are generally competitive in southern and border states.
In 1992, 98 Democratic members (38 percent) represented southern and border districts, which turned out to be an early indicator of the tough times that they'd ultimately see in '94.
Entering the 1994 election Democrats held a 98 to 59 advantage in southern- and border-state House seats. But the strongest element in those Democratic holdings in districts that otherwise had GOP leanings was the seniority of conservative Democratic incumbents.
Then, retirements created a wellspring of Republican opportunities in many districts there, and the Republicans gained 22 southern and border districts in 1994, erased the Democratic advantage when they amassed a 6 seat gain there in 1996, and continue to maintain an edge to this day in that part of the country.
The 1994 GOP triumph also came at the expense of Democrats in rural and plains seats outside the South. Democrats lost seats in rural Ohio, Washington, Iowa, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada. Most of these have since gone back to the Democrats, often because ideologically moderate Democrats there have successfully avoided being tagged as closely associated with national liberals, who aren't always popular in those areas. Other Republican gains from a decade ago in states like California have largely been recaptured by Democrats as well.
The delayed impact of 1991 redistricting -- when district boundaries are re-drawn to accommodate population changes -- was postponed in part by the 1992 Clinton victory, and was also a major factor in the 1994 elections. This was especially true in the South, where Democrats lost three seats in Georgia, three in North Carolina, and one in South Carolina that were attributable to redistricting. However, redistricting will be a non-factor in 2010 (keep your eyes on 2012, though, after there'll be another round of it.)
Groups and Constituencies
Additionally, the Republican gains in 1994 that led to a House majority were boosted by the following groups: southern whites (65 percent), conservatives (79 percent), and white men (62 percent). Some of these GOP gains have been solidified and consistent since, yet could be offset in impact by the changing proportions of these groups in the electorate. To reverse the Democrats' recent wins, Republicans will also need to reverse Democratic gains in the suburbs and among higher income, higher-education voters.
And as always, watch independents as a harbinger of what could happen. Republicans increased their share of the Independent vote from 46 percent in 1992 to 56 percent in 1994 and with white women from 49 percent in 1992 to 55 percent in 1996. Those gains evaporated quickly and have not been replicated in recent years. In 2008 Republicans got 43 percent of independents in the House vote nationally.
Translating a national House vote to seat gains and loses is always tricky historically, but some broad guidelines probably hold. The Democrats 2006 and 2008 gains were backed with a tailwind of large eight percent and nine percent margins in the total House vote, respectively. If Republicans in 2010 are able to reduce those Democratic margins to something closer to four percent or five percent or so, it's a reasonable bet that the GOP could pick up double-digit gains.
This, again, is a consequence of the Democrats holding 59 percent of the total House seats, where vulnerabilities become larger with larger majorities.
As we head toward 2010, history suggests that Republicans would be expecting to make gains -- though whether any gain, if it materializes, is a modest one of 10 seats or less, a moderate one of 10 to 20 seats, or a major gain of 20 or more, remains to be seen. For those looking for comparisons to 1994, however, there are limits to the similarities – at least in the way the current House is set up.
In part 2 of this series, we'll take a look at specific districts, where the action may be heated in 2010, and how it could relate to the current health care debates.