Despite Unease, Democrats May Lose Out

Twelve years ago, a tidal wave of dissatisfaction with Congress brought Republicans to control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. This year, unhappiness with Capitol Hill is prompting comparisons to 1994, but the minority Democrats may find it hard to take advantage.

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Twelve years ago this fall a political tsunami hit Washington. Midway through President Bill Clinton's first term, voters fired the majority Democrats and gave Republicans full control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Fast forward to 2006, and in this midterm election year, it's the GOP looking vulnerable. And that has a lot of people wonder whether there's another big wave on the horizon.

Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

Will 2006 deliver the same kind of political shock as 1994? Democrat pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, sees a lot of parallels.

Mr. PETER HART (Democratic Pollster): 1994 and 2006 are exactly the same in one respect, voters are unhappy. Voters want change.

LIASSON: If you look at the leading political indicators, voters are actually more unhappy today than they were in 1994. Back then, 34 percent of voters gave the Democratic Congress positive ratings. Today, Hart's polling shows only 23 percent of voters approve of the Republican Congress.

Mr. HART: Clearly there's a wave. When you look at the early trial heats, we have never seen a wave like this since 1994. It's going to land on the beach. It's going to land with force. The question is, how many people will it take down with it?

Mr. BILL MCINTURFF (Republican Pollster): There's no question that's the mood of the country. But there are huge differences between now and 1994.

LIASSON: That's Bill McInturff, Peter Hart's Republican partner at the Wall Street Journal poll, and he points out that in 1994 there were a whopping 52 House seats with no incumbent running for reelection. That was one big reason why there were 130 seats considered competitive in 1994. Today, there are only about 50.

Mr. MCINTURFF: When we had that huge wave as Republicans in '94, we had huge opportunity. Today the Democrats have a good national climate and a very small opportunity, or much smaller.

LIASSON: But maybe the Democrats don't need anymore opportunities than they already have, says Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House and the man who in 1994 played Moses, leading his party out of its 40 years in the wilderness. Gingrich points out that to win a majority this year, Democrats only need a net pickup of 15 seats.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Republican Congressman): The Democrats only have to pickup a third as many seats as we did. I mean, 1994 was a genuine watershed election. They don't need a watershed. They just need a, you know, nice good current.

LIASSON: Think of this year's midterm elections as a battle between two opposing forces. On one side, the wave of anti-incumbent, anti-Republican feeling. On the other, the mighty fortress of incumbent protections. Republican strategist Joe Gaylord was Gingrich's chief political advisor in 1994. He says today's Republican seats are a lot safer than Democrats' seats were 12 years ago, precisely because of what happened in 1994.

Mr. JOE GAYLORD (Republican Political Strategist): One of the great advantages of the '94 election was that it ran so deeply down into the state level vote for governorships and then for state legislatures, and those majorities remained pretty much intact through the 2000 election and you were able to draw very favorable Congressional districts in 2001.

LIASSON: And there's another difference, says Democrat Peter Hart, one that makes the terrain even more difficult. In 1994, as Democrats' approval ratings went down, Republicans' went up. That seesaw effect is not happening this year. Instead, voters don't seem to like either party.

Mr. HART: It's the first time in my history of over 40 years of finding both parties being held in negative perception by the voters. That changes the dynamic slightly.

LIASSON: This year there are signs that Republicans are dispirited and disheartened while Democrats are angry and energized. That ought to mean higher Democratic turnout. But Bill McInturff says right now, that's just so much punditry.

Mr. MCINTURFF: In between punditry, actual elections break out. And we're sitting here in almost July. We've had a whole round of primaries. We've had special elections. Looking at the special election turnout in California, looking at these primaries, we're not having extraordinary turnout. There's no question Democrats are intense, but we're not seeing that in terms of actual turnout.

LIASSON: There's another factor that both parties acknowledge. The big anti-incumbent wave of 12 years ago did not reach flood stage until the fall. In 1994, former Democratic Congressman Vick Fazio was the head of his party's congressional campaign committee and he remembers what the political climate felt like at this point in the cycle.

Mr. VICK FAZIO (Former Head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): I think we were feeling a certain foreboding, but I think it's fair to say that we still had high hopes for holding on.

LIASSON: This year, the bad news for Republicans was obvious much earlier and they all understand how vulnerable they are. Fazio says one reason is the Democrats in 1994 were accustomed to 40 years of control by fat margins in the House. Today's Republicans have never had a majority big enough to feel safe.

Mr. FAZIO: They certainly have a much more marginal majority than we did, and I think because it's been tested almost every two years since 1994, you can argue that they're battle-tested and hardened and ready to protect their incumbency.

LIASSON: And ready they are on every front from fundraising to door-to-door canvassing. But Fazio adds that there are times when no amount of defense is enough when the wind is blowing against you and the tide is too high to resist, and that's certainly what Democrats are hoping will happen this year, the reverse of their big loss in 1994.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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