Establishment opinion in Washington is beginning to realize the GOP has the opportunity -- however small -- to recapture Congress in this year's midterm elections. A wave of anti-incumbent, anti-big-government sentiment has been building for some time. Recapturing the House was always a possibility (though more Democratic retirements would improve the GOP's chances). With the retirement of Evan Bayh of Indiana, however, the mainstream media is also considering the real possibility of a Republican Senate takeover, as far-fetched as that may seem. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times feature articles today that look at the numbers.
"In theory, at least," writes the Times's Adam Nagourney, a GOP Senate is "possible." In short, Republicans would have to hold all of their open seats, run the table in Arkansas, Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and South Dakota, pick up at least one seat in California, Connecticut, New York, or Wisconsin, and convince Joe Lieberman to switch to the GOP. That would get the GOP to 51 and a bare majority in the Senate. Everything would have to go right for such a victory to occur -- but it's no longer unthinkable.
What struck me about these articles, however, is how they are appearing early in the cycle. This was not the case in 1994. Then, establishment opinion dismissed the possibility of a GOP Congress until only months before Election Day. I spent a few minutes on the Lexis-Nexis database to see how often the terms "Republican" and "Congress" and "takeover" or "win" appeared in the Times in January and February 1994. I got 138 matches, but no stories about a potential GOP sweep in that year's midterms. Such a result wasn't even on the radar.
To scan the headlines and skim the articles of early 1994 is to be reminded of how that year resembles our own. A young, charismatic, liberal president saw his approval ratings falter. Imperious Democratic congressional majorities aided the president tactically but harmed him strategically. Health care reform was stuck in Congress (though Obama's effort at least came to a vote, and passed, in both chambers). The president had just delivered his State of the Union and released his budget for the coming year (Clinton's budget -- I am not making this up -- was $1.5 trillion; Obama's is $3.8 trillion -- and Obama's projected deficit for FY2011 is almost as large as Clinton's entire budget proposal for FY1995!).
A major difference between the two years is that the GOP made gains in the 1992 elections prior to the 1994 win, whereas the past two cycles have been brutal for Republicans. It's an open question whether the victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts equal the momentum from '92. Perhaps the reaction to Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, combined with the ongoing effects of the financial crisis and recession, are enough to promote Republican victory. We'll see.
Regardless, one story that caught my eye was Richard L. Berke's February 22, 1994, dispatch, "Clinton Moving to Avoid Losses in '94 elections." Berke's key paragraph:
White House officials acknowledge that the party that wins the White House has historically paid at the polls two years later, so their goal is to protect the already narrow margin of safety in the Senate, where the Democrats now dominate, 56 to 44, and in the House, where they have an 81-seat majority but where nearly 40 members have announced retirements. On several major issues, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the budget, the Administration won victories last year with bare majorities.
Clinton tasked Harold Ickes to limit Democratic losses. We know how that worked out for him.
One freshman Democratic congressman told Berke: "I'm concerned that with the flux the political operation is in, will they be ready to actually make a difference in helping people's elections? That's something the jury is still out on."
The congressman was Bob Menendez of New Jersey, now the senator in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. We now know the Clinton White House didn't make much of a difference in 1994. And it's hard to see how the Obama White House will make much of a difference in 2010.
Update, 3:38 p.m.: A friend reminds me that Michael Barone was perhaps the first commentator to float the idea of a Republican takeover in this July 1994 column for US News and World Report. It's worth reading again today, especially in light of Barone's claim in his latest Examiner column that "in five decades of closely following American politics, I have never seen the Democratic Party in worse shape."