Will This Year's Midterm Elections Mirror 1994?

Correction May 20, 2010

Some audio versions of this story referred to the White House and two chambers of Congress as "all three branches" of the federal government. They are only the executive and legislative branches. The third branch, the judicial system, is appointed and not elected and is not controlled by either political party.

Democratic Rep. Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th District. i i

hide captionDemocratic Rep. Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns in a special election Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th District. Many people looked at the special election as a bellwether for November.

Keith Srakocic/AP
Democratic Rep. Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th District.

Democratic Rep. Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns in a special election Tuesday in Pennsylvania's 12th District. Many people looked at the special election as a bellwether for November.

Keith Srakocic/AP

Politicians in both parties are poring over Tuesday's election results, trying to figure out what they might mean for the midterms in November.

The voters sent a mixed message: It's still a terrible year to be an incumbent, but maybe not as horrendous a year for Democrats as they had thought.

The incumbent backed by President Obama, Sen. Arlen Specter, lost his Senate primary in Pennsylvania, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas was forced into a runoff. But in the special election in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District — the only general election Tuesday night in which a Democrat and a Republican faced off — the Democrat won.

A Bellwether For November?

"This is the kind of seat that Republicans need to win if they're going to pick up 40 seats in November," says former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who used to run his party's House campaign committee.

Davis, like many others, looked at the race between Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Tim Burns as a bellwether for November.

"That's a district that [Republican presidential candidate John] McCain carried — this is a blue-collar seat, doesn't have a lot of minorities in it. It's tailor-made for a Republican pickup, and Republicans didn't win," he says.

Both parties spent millions on the race. Republican Burns ran on a national platform. He held Tea Party rallies and attacked the agenda set by Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democrat Critz focused on local issues — and took home the victory.

And that's the right strategy, says Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is the head of his party's campaign committee.

"The Republicans test-drove their November strategy in this special election, and it crashed miserably," Van Hollen says. "To the extent that they've hyped the November elections and said there's going to be a huge wave of Republican wins, it certainly put a dent in their claims."

Republican Voters More Energized

That raises the question that a lot of people have been asking this year: Is this 1994 all over again? Or not?

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is in charge of recruiting Republican House candidates, thinks this year is a lot like other "wave" elections that changed party control of Congress.

"I think this is a national campaign year, much like '94 and 2006. If you look at the intensity, you look at the generic polling, Republicans are in stronger position today than where they were at this time in 1994," he says.

There's no doubt Republican voters are more energized this year — and in what McCarthy calls the generic polling, voters are split between wanting a Republican or Democrat, and that's not a good sign for the majority Democrats. But there's something that's very different from 1994, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin.

"In 1994, when Democrats were last in this position, they really did not engage the race until it was too late, and there was a lot of whistling past the graveyard. There's no Democrat anywhere in America who takes this election lightly," Garin says.

Former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, who survived the Republican tidal wave that swept his party out of power in 1994, says Democrats have to do something that's very hard to do for a party holding the reins of government: make the election into a choice between individual candidates instead of a referendum on Democratic policies.

"The election is very much up for grabs," Frost says. "The Democrats just need to keep running good campaigns, hope that the economy turns better, and maybe the losses won't be nearly as great as the press thinks they're gonna be."

That's the best outcome Democrats can hope for this year. And, after Tuesday night, they may have some reason to hope.

Pennsylvania's District 12 was the third special election this year in a swing district that Democrats have won. That makes Republican Davis wonder if this will be a wave election like 1994 — or something else.

"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with Washington. The president's numbers are way down," Davis says. "The question is, what form is it going take on Election Day? It may be, instead of a hurricane, that this is one of these tornadoes that comes around and hits here and then skips a couple towns and lets down somewhere else. In the race in Pennsylvania, the Democrat was pro-gun, he was pro-life, he said he voted against health care. Democrats that can adapt to their surroundings — maybe they can survive."

Other elections are coming soon — and they will provide more clues about whether the midterms will look more like a tsunami or a tornado.

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