Will 2010 Be Another 1994? Don't Bet On It (But Take Our 'Poll')

As we inch closer to the new year, Republicans are beginning to say outloud what they've been hinting at in recent months — that the 2010 midterm elections could result in another 1994-like tsunami.

With polling for congressional Democrats on the decline — though still above what we're seeing for the GOP — and President Obama under the gun for double-digit unemployment and his decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Republicans sense an opening. Having lost its majorities in the House and Senate in the 2006 elections, and after having suffered additional losses last year, the GOP thinks the growing dissatisfaction and malaise will be enough to return them to power in the elections that are 334 days away.

It's early, and we don't know the identities of all the candidates yet. We don't know if health care will pass or in what form. We don't know what the situation in Afghanistan (or, for that matter, Iraq) will look like next summer. We don't know if the economy will turn around, or if people will return to work. If memory serves, it wasn't until September of 1994 when it seemed like Democratic control of Congress was in serious jeopardy. So things certainly can change in a hurry.

Having said that, I tend to agree with the assessment written five weeks ago in Politico by Martin Frost, the former Texas congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said it would be foolhardy to compare 2010 to 1994:

On the surface, a comparison might seem to make sense. After all, in 1994, newly elected Democratic President Bill Clinton was serving his first two years, and there were Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. And we all know what happened: Republicans won control of both chambers in a historic rout.

But there are major differences, Frost wrote.

First and foremost ... was that House Democrats in 1994 were a tired, old majority that had run out of steam after being in control for 40 years. The most recent Republican majority in the House had occurred during the opening two years, 1953 and 1954, of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term. Democrats in 1994 were complacent, assuming they were a permanent House majority. Also, they were short on new ideas and did not have strong leadership. Democrats today have policy ideas and clearly have energetic leadership.

Also, there were a number of factors at play in 1994 that are not present in 2010. Leading the list was the fact that Democrats had to defend a large number of open seats because of retirements and members running for other offices. A total of 18 such open seats were lost by the Democrats. So far, Democratic retirements have been held to a minimum. ...

Back in '94, many of the venerable Southern Dems who decided to retire, such as Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, were holding onto seats that were ready to go Republican the moment they left, and they did.

Since Frost's article, there has been a development of sorts: two House Democrats announced they were quitting. The first one was Dennis Moore in Kansas. Then, this week, John Tanner of Tennessee — like Moore, a fellow Blue Dog Democrat — said he wouldn't seek re-election next year.

The announcement of two retirements is hardly a trend — most journalists know that you need three of anything to see a theme develop. But it's the first Dem retirements of this cycle (other than those House members who are leaving to seek higher office), and that has caught the eye of some strategists ... including Martin Frost, who had a different sense of urgency today.

In his column, headlined, "Warning Signals for House Democrats," Frost writes that he still thinks the Dems are "a long way from risking their majority in the House," but that the two retirements mean that "House Democratic leaders have best pay attention to the warning they are sounding":

Their decisions spell trouble for Democrats seeking to maintain a decent majority in the next Congress.

Let's just look at history as a guide. When Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, their inability to hold a number of open Democratic swing districts contributed to massive GOP pick-ups. Again in 1996, when Democrats rebounded by picking up nine seats, they would have returned to the majority but for their inability to hold 10 open seats.

I keep hearing numbers being tossed around about how many House seats the Democrats could lose next year. Usually, it's around 20; a loss of 41 would return the majority to the GOP.

Stu Rothenberg, one of the more astute observers of congressional elections, released his list of the "Dangerous Dozen House Seats for 2010" — the ones he thinks are most likely to turn over. And while ten ofthe 12 are indeed Democratic seats, there are also two Republican ones on them as well: the Louisiana 2nd CD seat of Joseph Cao, and the open Delaware at-large seat that Mike Castle is vacating to run for the Senate.

Here are Stu's 10 Dem House seats he rates as most vulnerable: LA 03 (open; Charlie Melancon is running for the Senate), VA 05 (freshman Tom Perriello), MD 01 (freshman Frank Kratovil), KS 03 (open; Dennis Moore retiring), OH 01 (freshman Steve Driehaus), OH 15 (freshman Mary Jo Kilroy), FL 08 (freshman Alan Grayson), NM 02 (freshman Harry Teague), NY 02 (open; Paul Hodes is running for the Senate), and NY 23 (freshman Bill Owens).

Most observers, from both parties, see Republicans gaining House seats next year. What do you think? Take our unscientific poll:

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