The ghost of 1994 has kept hanging over the House Democrats’ heads almost this entire Congress. That’s more the product of conventional wisdom feeding upon itself and turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else, but there are legitimate warning signs on the road ahead: not just the natural pendulum-swinging that occurs during almost every midterm against the party that controls all levels of power, but also clues like the Republicans moving into the lead in many generic congressional ballots and polls showing Republicans competitive in individual House races (although many of those polls are either internals or from dubious pollsters).
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to expect that, while the Democrats may lose seats, there won’t be a 1994-level wipeout. There aren’t as many retirements as in 1994 (where the Dems had 28 open seats), and certainly not as many retirements in unpleasantly red seats (17 of those 1994 retirements were in GOP-leaning seats according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index – compared with only 8 facing us in 2010). There are still lots of polls, of the non-Rasmussen variety, giving the Dems an edge in the generic ballot. The DCCC has a sizable financial advantage, and maybe most importantly, the DCCC and its individual members appear acutely aware of the potential danger, unlike in ’94, when they seemed to blithely sail into disaster.
This week we’re going to be doing a multi-part series looking at the House in 1994, trying to draw some parallels and applying those lessons to today. To make this investigation as accessible as possible, we’re going to frame it in terms of a number of myths about 1994, and see how much reality there is to them. For instance, were the members who lost done in by their “yes” votes on tough bills? And was the impact of the post-1992, post-Voting Rights Act redistricting a killer for moderate southern Dems suddenly cast into more difficult districts? Those are problems we’ll look at in the next few days. For today, we’ll start with:
Myth #1: Losses in 1994 were full of surprises: the old and the new, the vulnerable and the safe were swept away together by the tide.
No, not especially true. According to standard diagnostic tools (such as Cook PVI or the 1992 victory margins of individual House members), the vulnerable seats were lost; the not-so-vulnerable seats were retained. The House Vulnerability Index that I’ve applied in several posts to today’s electoral cycle, in fact, does a pretty remarkable job of predicting who would have lost in 1994. If you aren’t familiar with it, it simply combines PVI and previous victory margin into one handy value that rates a particular member’s vulnerability relative to other members of the same party. (For open seats, the HVI uses a victory margin of zero.) It doesn’t predict how likely a person is to lose – that depends heavily on the nature of the year – but it does predict likelihood of losing relative to other members of the party. (Cook hasn’t officially released PVIs for this era as far as I know, but I calculated them based on the 1988 and 1992 presidential election data for each district, according to post-1992 district lines.)
As it turns out, the HVI shows that, of the 25 most vulnerable seats in 1994, 23 were lost to the Republicans. Of seats 26 through 50, another 13 were lost. And of pre-1994 Democratic House members outside the top 100 in terms of vulnerability, there were only seven losses. In other words, the wave in 1994 was high enough that it claimed not only the open seats in red districts, but sloshed upward to claim a herd of freshmen in difficult districts and also veterans who’d had troubles in recent re-elections. (But what it didn’t do was claim more than a handful of those who seemed “invulnerable” either because of district lean or 1992 margin or both.)
The two survivors in 1994 from the top 25 are David Bonior, a member of leadership, and Tim Holden, then a freshman. Both, however, are guys who fit their blue-collar districts well (with a mix of pro-labor and socially conservative stances), and who have since proved their campaign mettle repeatedly (with Bonior holding down his difficult district for many years, and with Holden surprising everyone by surviving the 2002 gerrymander that targeted him for extinction). Among the most predictable losses in 1994, open seats led the way. However, losses among the most vulnerable incumbents included both frosh in red districts (Karen Shepherd and Jay Inslee were the most vulnerable) and veterans with tenuous holds on difficult districts (starting with Peter Hoagland and George Hochbrueckner, who both narrowly escaped 1992).
(The two italicized races above required some manual adjustment. OH-01 initially seems safe because David Mann technically had no Republican opponent in 1992. However, he defeated Stephen Grote, a Republican who ran as an independent due to problems with his GOP nominating papers, by just 2.5%, so it seems appropriate to use that number instead. In WI-01, Peter Barca needs to be evaluated by his narrow 1993 special election victory, rather than Les Aspin’s convincing ’92 general election victory.)
The seven who lost despite being outside of the top 100 most vulnerable are an interesting mixed bag. The popular perception (perhaps helped along by the mainstream media, shocked to see their frequent cocktail party compatriots swept away) of the 1994 election is that many “old bulls” were swept out of power. In reality, only a few were: depending on who you count as an “old bull,” it’s more or less 4. They mostly fall in this 100+ area; in fact, the only legendary figure to lose who wasn’t in this range was then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley, who clocked in at #79. Most of the other vulnerable incumbents who lost weren’t legends but are little remembered today, perhaps except for for Dan Glickman (who went on to run the MPAA), Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (famous mostly for being 94’s iconic loser), and Dick Swett (who just has a hilarious name).
Another perception is that there was a major house-cleaning of Reps caught up in the House banking scandal or sundry other corruption, but only one falls in this category: Dan Rostenkowski. “Old bulls” Judiciary chair Jack Brooks and Appropriations cardinal Neal Smith weren’t implicated in anything, but rather just seem to have been caught napping — as was the less-senior David Price, who returned to the House in 1996, where he remains today. (Most of the House banking scandal-related house-cleaning occurred in 1992, often in Democratic primaries rather than the general.)
The Vulnerability Index was even highly predictive of losses of Republican seats (and yes, there were some: a total of four, all open seats in Dem-leaning districts). Of the top 6 most vulnerable Republican-held seats, 4 were Democratic pickups. In any other year, several of these incumbents probably would have also been taken out.
So, what lessons might we infer from all this? First, we should probably expect to kiss a number of our open seats, especially ones in red districts, goodbye, as open seats are the first to fall. (In 1994, the GOP ran the table on all Dem-held open seats in GOP-leaning districts and even into most of swing territory; the reddest open seat Dems held in ’94 was the D+3 TX-25, retained by Ken Bentsen.) We shouldn’t be surprised to see some losses among the freshmen either, as they tend to wind up high up the Vulnerability Index (because freshmen usually win their prior elections – i.e., their first – by narrower margins than veterans win theirs). And finally, we can still hope to pick up a handful of the most vulnerable GOP-held seats regardless of the size of the GOP wave (you can probably name the same ones I’m thinking of: DE-AL, LA-02, and IL-10).