Two months before the November 1994 off-year elections, I and several dozen other Republican candidates were scrambling to raise funds necessary to have a chance of unseating our Democratic incumbent opponents. Although we hoped to prevail, few if any of us really grasped what was about to happen. The gathering tsunami that would sweep the GOP to a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades on November 8th of that year, was a secret known only by then-Minority Leader Newt Gingrich and a tight-knit fraternity of associates and consultants.
President Clinton’s unpopularity in the fall of 1994 was palpable; but few prognosticators or media pundits understood the depth of the disdain with which large segments of the voting population viewed the chief executive. The economy was in far better shape than now, and although Clinton’s embrace of gun control that year, and of a large tax increase the year before, clearly had sapped his popularity, neither he nor most analysts expected he would wake up on November 9th facing a hostile House and Senate.
It was, more than anything, a tribute to the hard work and vision of Newt Gingrich that caused a seismic shift in American politics 16 years ago. It was not simply that he worked his fingers to the bone in the months leading to the election; but his untiring efforts over the decade before, that provided the horsepower that undercut 40 years of Democratic control.
In 1994, the Republican Party nationally had vision, an articulated agenda, and well-known leadership. The Democratic Party had control of a Congress that was a mile wide and an inch deep; led by a president blinded by his own hubris. It turned out to be a toxic recipe for the incumbent party.
Here we are, eight election cycles later, and the respected Cook Political Report is predicting another major political shift similar to that of ‘94. In his latest crystal ball gaze, Charlie Cook foresees a 40-seat shift in the House (enough for a GOP majority) and a possible nine-seat dislocation in the Senate (which would change the majority there, too). Yet, few politically-knowledgeable Americans could articulate anything resembling a Republican agenda, vision or leadership; they couldn’t, because there simply is no national GOP vision, agenda or leadership.
This time, it is the party in power that is doing it all on its own; the master of its own looming demise. Fair or not, the Democratic Party nationally is being tarred with the broad brush that is the continuing bad economy. The sour mood infecting the electorate is made bitterer still by the health care legislation championed by a hubris-infected president pushing against a citizenry clearly not on the same page.
And while the Tea Party movement has failed thus far to realize the potential attributed to it a year ago, it clearly reflects very broad-based voter dissatisfaction. Already, several Republican candidates who would not likely on their own be poised to win against Democratic incumbents, have successfully tapped into that sense of general unease to boost their poll numbers. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Unlike 1994, when the Democrats were caught napping, this time they see it coming already. Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly is strong-arming her colleagues in safe districts to dig deep into their war chests to help more vulnerable members. Attack ads are appearing early and often. In another obvious effort to stanch the growing hemorrhage, the weakest and most vulnerable Democratic incumbents already are being cut loose.
Whether all this will enable Pelosi and Reid to cling to small majorities in their respective bodies remains an open question; there are, after all, eight weeks remaining before Election Day. But right now, despite themselves, the Republicans may reap what the Democrats have sown; and with very little effort.