Pundits have already begun looking ahead to the 2010 midterm elections. Is Obama like Clinton? Is there a political agitator like Newt Gingrich on the Republican side? Will the series of Obama goofs in cabinet appointments, the tension within the Democrat Party, and a downturn in the economy lead to massive voter dissatisfaction in 2010? In some ways 2010 may look like 1994, but Republican hopes in 2010 rest less on how it resembles 1994 than in how it does not. Begin with the basics.
Democrats did not control the House of Representatives for over forty years because they were popular with the American people. They held onto power because they had held power so long that no one seriously dreamed that Democrats would ever not run the House. Representative Tony Coelho, a Democrat whip who was later caught in a scandal, warned that people had better support Democrats because they were going to run things for a long time. Two generations of Americans had reached adulthood without Republicans ever controlling the House of Representatives.
Jim Wright, the Speaker of the House, was forced out of office...and still Democrats ran everything. The House Banking Scandal, the largest scandal of federal elected officials in the history of the republic, broke out in all its messiness...and still Democrats ran everything. There is no such sense of inevitability now. Republicans controlled the House for fourteen straight years. If they pick up forty seats, something common in midterm elections, Republicans will run the House. Voting for a Democrat House member no longer automatically means voting for the next House committee chair. The uncertainty of power removes many reasons why people used to vote for Democrats. The miracle of 1994 was in persuading tens of millions of Americans to vote against their interests by supporting Republican candidates. Today people are used to both parties running the House.
In 1994 the overwhelming majority of congressional districts were drawn either to elect as many Democrats as possible or to minimize Republican strength in states. When Reagan was elected in 1980, the majority of Californians voted for Republican House candidates, but Democrats gained the vast majority of House seats in California. Why? Rampant gerrymandering dramatically reduced Republican strength in Congress. Most congressional districts in 2010 will not be districts drawn to elect as many Democrats to the House as possible. If past Republican voters simply return to the Republican Party in 2010, dozens of House seats will flip for Republicans.
While Gingrich had to swim against gerrymandering in 1994, Republicans in 2010 will not. Gerrymandering in 1990 gave Democrats 37 more seats in the House than their percentage of the national vote in all House races. Democrats in 1992 had 36 more seats in the House than their percentage of the national vote in all House races. In 2006, when Democrats captured the House, their number of House seats was almost exactly their percentage of the national vote in all House races.
What was true in House races was also true in state legislative races. State legislative districts in 1994 were largely gerrymandered to elect as many Democrats as possible to state legislatures. Republican losses in state legislatures have been much less serious than losses in Congress, so becoming the majority party in state legislatures is very conceivable in 2010 even with 1994 state legislative districts. But the districts are not the highly gerrymandered state legislative districts of 1994. If Republican candidates can win back Republican voters, significant gains in state legislatures are certain.
Democrat scandals hurt the Democrat Party in 1994 and will likely hurt again in 2010. Blogojovich, Spitzer, and the rest stick out like sore thumbs, just as Rostenkowski did in 1994. The difference is that in 1994 there were almost no Republican scandals - Republicans had been out of power too long to corrupt it much - and the nation had largely become accustomed to Democrat scandals. Jim Wright, Harrison Williams, Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hayes, and many other Democrats covered national news pages for decades without harm to Democrats nationally. But the Democrat revival in 2006 was largely because of Democrats reminding voters of Republican scandals. Any "Throw the rascals out!" sentiment in 2010, a year in which Democrats will be running everything, will have to hurt Democrats.
Republicans are, slowly, beginning to talk like conservatives again. 1994 was based upon the realization that conservatives are the majority of voters (Battleground Polls consistently put self-identified voters at near 60%; other polls have huge "moderate" groups, but always "conservatives" strongly outnumber "liberals.") The Contract with America, for example, was built around a set of poll tested conservative reforms. Obama is striving hard to avoid the label of "Leftist" or "liberal," because he knows that is national political suicide. Yet no modern American president can run away from the label of "liberal" with less success than Obama. If the nation breaks down into a "conservative" versus "liberal" battle, conservatives will win easily. Lots of Democrats in 1994 ran as conservatives. Very few Democrats in 2010 will be able to do that.
What must Republicans do? First, identify a set of reforms like the Contract with America which are easy to understand and popular. Push those at the national and state level. Second, make ideological differences very clear between the two political parties. Don't try to be "liberal-lite." Third, push hard in those Republican congressional and state legislative districts which now have Democrats. Dozens of House seats, with very junior Democrats, are in Republican districts. Hundreds of Democrat state legislators are in Republican districts. Capturing the House of Representatives and many state legislative bodies will have profound influence on the rebirth of the Republican Party into a majority party. Republicans need to recall just how unpopular and vilified Newt Gingrich was in 1994. Winning political power will endear no Republican to the mainstream media. But it can be done, quite simply, if Republicans are stout and sure.