Political replays don’t exist: 2010 is 2010

Font Size:

To all those who see 2010 being a replay of 1994: This isn’t the NFL, and there are no political replays. Some atmospherics are similar — there’s a Democratic president fading in the polls and widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, just as in 1994 – but the GOP was in far better position to take advantage of Democrats’ vulnerability then than they are now.

First, in 1994, Republican leaders in Congress had prepared a plan to nationalize Congressional elections and move disaffected voters into their corner.  They had scandal, an attitude of entitlement by the ruling party and the Contract With America.  If the current leadership has a plan in any way comparable to the Contract With America, it is D.C.’s best-kept secret.  Without such a plan, or any other device to similarly shift the momentum, Republicans will be hard-pressed to match their success of 1994–when they picked up 54 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight in the U.S. Senate.

Here’s why:

1.    Democrats Know the GOP is Hungry
Congressional Democrats were fat and happy in the fall of 1994.  They had held the majority in both houses of Congress for more than 40 years.  They were led by a popular president who had just unseated a Republican incumbent.  They sensed there would be some backlash for President Clinton’s early initiative to reform health care, but they didn’t anticipate anything like the tsunami that was brewing.  Democrats operate under no such illusions today.  They know they are going to lose seats–particularly in the House.  Their objective is to limit to the damage, and the substantial advantage in fundraising they enjoy–$15.35 million on hand for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee vs. $4.35 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee, with similar advantages in the Senate campaign committees and national committees–will be tough for Republicans to overcome.

2.    Democrats Know “the Real Problem”
By November, Democrats will have weathered two of the big three storms they now confront–health care reform and the surge in Afghanistan.  That will leave only the most substantial challenge for them – the economy.  That’s why they’ve already begun to signal – from the administration to both houses of Congress and beyond – that their focus will turn to creating jobs. Last month, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told The Wall Street Journal, “[w]e really have to focus like a laser on creating jobs…if we can…get jobs into positive places, the American public is going to become more confident and have less angst.”  If the economy dramatically improves and Hoyer and his fellow Democrats can take credit, the GOP could have a tough row to hoe.

3.    Some “At-Risk” Democrats Haven’t Had Enough Steak at The Palm
In 1994, by the time November rolled around, many Democrats, particularly in the House of Representatives, had accepted their fate.  They had been in Congress for years and no longer hungered for the star power their positions afforded them. They were all too happy to return to their districts or, in the case of some, such as Rep. Richard H. Lehman of California, settle into well-paid lobbying positions.

This won’t be the case in 2010. Of the 10 most-vulnerable Democrats in 2010, according to pollster Stuart Rothenberg, seven are freshmen, such as Virginia’s own Tom Perriello, who are unlikely to give up early.  The more money Republicans must spend to defeat these 10, the less it will have for more competitive races.

4.    Anything Resembling a Tie Is Likely to Go to the Democratic Contender
One would think after presidential recounts in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, the GOP would have worked to elect as many secretaries of state (chief election officers), as possible.  Yet, in 2008, still another election official played a critical role in the defeat of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota.  Democratic financier George Soros sees the opening – his Secretary of State Project (SOS) has helped Democrats elect secretaries of state in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia – and could be a problem again in 2010.  Republicans better not have to depend on a recount in any of these states.

5.    Conservative Tea Partiers vs. Establishment Republicans
Starting last April, with the GOP in shambles, conservative tea partiers gave Republicans hope.  They put the party on their back and carried it through a summer of town hall meetings, rallies and protests.  But the fiasco in NY-23 illustrates the downside of splitting the Republican tent.  Yes, tea partiers did help produce a more conservative candidate and oust a liberal-moderate running under the Republican banner.  But in the end, a seat that had been in Republican hands for more than 100 years went to a Democrat.  Local Republican parties and tea party participants need to find common ground and a way to harness this energy for electoral success.  Otherwise, Democrats and media pundits will be more than happy to play up these internal battles among Republicans in hopes of replicating the results of NY-23 elsewhere in the country.

6.    Now Is Not The Time For Arrogance
Newsflash: Republicans haven’t won anything at the congressional level yet.  Yet, in the past few weeks, energized conservatives have begun to sound almost arrogant.  Quin Hillyer picked up on this beautifully in his piece, “Beware of Overconfidence,” which appeared in the online edition of The American Spectator.  He called overconfidence “a danger that is threatening to break out throughout the conservative movement.”  We agree. Republicans must keep the pedal on the gas right now.

For a variety of reasons, this won’t be a repeat of 1994.  The people and situation are different.  Democrats are more vulnerable to a broadside in some ways and less in others.  But what will happen?  At this point, the only certain answer to that is, “a wild ride.”  It’s hard to say which direction we’ll head this cycle.  But it will be interesting to watch.
Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia — “Where Virginia Politics Meets Social Media.”   Ford and Steve advise political campaigns on the use of digital technology for effective communication, fundraising and voter outreach You can follow them on Twitter @projectVirginia.