Learning from 1994 (Part I)

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.)

District Rep. 1992
FL-01 Open (Hutto) 0 0 R+20 1 1
FL-15 Open (Bacchus) 0 0 R+14 5 5
SC-03 Open (Derrick) 0 0 R+13 8 8
AZ-01 Open (Coppersmith) 0 0 R+9 13 13
GA-08 Open (Rowland) 0 0 R+8 16 16
IN-02 Open (Sharp) 0 0 R+8 19 19
MS-01 Open (Whitten) 0 0 R+7 23 23
NC-02 Open (Valentine) 0 0 R+7 24 24
OK-04 Open (McCurdy) 0 0 R+7 28 28
NE-02 Hoagland 2.4% 15 R+8 15 30
TN-03 Open (Lloyd) 0 0 R+5 36 36
UT-02 Shepherd 3.7% 20 R+8 17 37
WA-04 Inslee 1.7% 12 R+7 30 42
PA-06 Holden 4.1% 23 R+7 22 45
GA-10 Johnson 7.6% 37 R+10 12 49
CA-19 Lehman 0.5% 2 R+4 48 50
NC-05 Open (Neal) 0 0 R+4 50 50
NY-01 Hochbrueckner 3.1% 17 R+6 34 51
NJ-02 Open (Hughes) 0 0 R+4 52 52
PA-13 Margolies-Mezvinsky 0.5% 3 R+4 51 54
OH-06 Strickland 1.4% 9 R+4 46 55
VA-11 Byrne 4.8% 24 R+5 38 62
MI-10 Bonior 8.9% 44 R+7 21 65
KS-02 Open (Slattery) 0 0 R+2 68 68
TN-04 Open (Cooper) 0 0 R+2 70 70
MI-08 Open (Carr) 0 0 R+1 74 74
VA-02 Pickett 12.1% 66 R+11 9 75
OH-02 Mann 2.5% 16 * R+2 61 77
IL-11 Open (Sangmeister) 0 0 R+1 78 78
KS-04 Glickman 9.6% 49 R+6 31 80
NC-03 Lancaster 11.2% 60 R+8 20 80
GA-07 Darden 14.6% 76 R+11 10 86
ME-01 Open (Andrews) 0 0 R+0 86 86
MN-07 Peterson 1.3% 6 R+1 80 86
MN-02 Minge 0.2% 1 R+0 87 88
CA-36 Harman 6.2% 31 R+3 59 90
MI-12 Levin 6.9% 34 R+3 57 91
MN-01 Open (Penny) 0 0 D+1 94 94
GA-09 Deal 18.4% 89 R+14 6 95
IN-08 McCloskey 7.2% 36 R+2 63 99
NJ-08 Klein 5.9% 29 R+1 72 101
OR-05 Open (Kopetski) 0 0 D+2 101 101
MT-AL Williams 3.5% 19 R+0 83 102
OH-18 Open (Applegate) 0 0 D+2 104 104
PA-15 McHale 5.6% 27 R+1 77 104
MO-09 Volkmer 2.3% 14 D+1 93 107
OH-19 Fingerhut 5.3% 25 R+0 82 107
TX-04 Hall 20.0% 96 R+11 11 107
AZ-06 English 11.6% 64 R+4 45 109
FL-05 Thurman 5.8% 28 R+1 81 109
ND-AL Pomeroy 17.4% 84 R+7 25 109
MD-05 Hoyer 9.1% 45 R+2 65 110
WA-02 Open (Swift) 0 0 D+2 110 110
UT-03 Orton 22.3% 109 R+18 2 111
ID-01 LaRocco 20.6% 98 R+9 14 112
NJ-06 Pallone 7.7% 38 R+1 73 111
OK-02 Open (Synar) 0 0 D+3 117 117
IN-03 Roemer 14.9% 78 R+5 40 118
IN-04 Long 24.1% 114 R+13 7 121
WI-01 Barca 0.6% * 4 D+3 118 122
NY-26 Hinchey 3.3% 18 D+2 105 123
TX-25 Open (Andrews) 0 0 D+3 126 126
KY-03 Open (Mazzoli) 0 0 D+3 127 127
FL-11 Gibbons 12.2% 67 R+2 62 129
MS-05 Taylor 27.8% 127 R+16 3 130
CA-03 Fazio 10.9% 59 R+1 75 134
CA-49 Schenk 8.5% 41 D+1 95 136
TN-06 Gordon 16.0% 81 R+3 56 137
NC-07 Rose 15.9% 80 R+3 58 138
TX-13 Sarpalius 20.7% 99 R+5 39 138
MI-13 Open (Ford) 0 0 D+4 139 139
AL-03 Browder 22.7% 113 R+7 27 140
CA-42 Brown 6.7% 32 D+2 108 140
SC-05 Spratt 22.5% 111 R+6 32 143
MI-01 Stupak 10.3% 55 D+0 89 144
NC-08 Hefner 21.1% 102 R+5 44 146
NY-18 Lowey 9.5% 48 D+1 99 147
OH-03 Hall 19.3% 92 R+3 55 147
WA-05 Foley 10.4% 56 D+1 92 148
CT-02 Gejdenson 1.6% 11 D+4 138 149
KY-06 Baesler 21.4% 105 R+4 47 152
MI-09 Kildee 8.9% 42 D+3 113 155
NH-02 Swett 26.0% 119 R+5 43 162
OR-01 Furse 4.1% 22 D+4 140 162
IL-03 Lipinski 27.0% 122 R+5 42 164
WA-09 Kreidler 8.9% 43 D+3 122 165
OH-13 Brown 18.1% 87 R+1 79 166
MO-06 Danner 10.9% 58 D+3 111 169
NY-05 Ackerman 6.1% 30 D+5 143 173
NY-28 Slaughter 10.4% 57 D+3 116 173
WA-01 Cantwell 12.9% 70 D+2 103 173
TX-16 Coleman 3.8% 21 D+6 155 176
CA-01 Hamburg 2.6% 16 D+7 164 180
TX-17 Stenholm 32.1% 147 R+6 33 180
NY-29 LaFalce 11.4% 62 D+3 123 185
TX-12 Geren 25.5% 118 R+2 67 185
MA-05 Meehan 14.7% 77 D+2 109 186
AL-05 Cramer 33.6% 152 R+6 35 187
PA-20 Open (Murphy) 0 0 D+11 192 192
VA-09 Boucher 26.2% 121 R+2 71 192

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.)

Rank District Rep. 1992
102 KY-01 Barlow 21.3% 104 D+0 90 194
104 TX-09 Brooks 10.1% 52 D+5 142 194
107 NV-01 Bilbray 19.9% 95 D+1 100 195
113 WA-03 Unsoeld 11.9% 65 D+4 136 201
124 IL-05 Rostenkowski 18.2% 88 D+5 146 234
129 NC-04 Price 30.9% 142 D+1 96 238
135 IA-04 Smith 25.1% 115 D+4 135 250

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.

District Rep. 1992
PA-18 Open (Santorum) 0 0 D+11 2 2
RI-01 Open (Machtley) 0 0 D+11 3 3
IA-02 Nussle 1.1% 3 D+6 8 11
IA-03 Lightfoot 1.9% 5 D+6 6 11
MN-06 Open (Grams) 0 0 D+2 14 14
ME-02 Open (Snowe) 0 0 D+1 15 15
NY-30 Quinn 5.4% 21 D+12 1 22
AR-04 Dickey 4.7% 19 D+6 7 26
MA-03 Blute 6.1% 25 D+5 9 34
CA-38 Horn 5.2% 20 D+1 18 38

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).

50 thoughts on “Learning from 1994 (Part I)”

  1. Is there a version of these lists for this Congress?  Where would Shea-Porter, Kagen, Grayson, and Periello be?

  2. This post answers so many questions I’ve had about ’94 and got my mind spinning about ’10 possibilities. One thing popping into my head – Will the Arkansas vacancies be a loss? My gut says no because I suspect Gingrich did a better job recruiting than Bohner in some key districts. I also don’t see the party unity in Republicans that was present in ’94 but I can only say that based upon written accounts such as Taylor Branch’s the Clinton Tapes. What do old timers (ahem David 🙂 think?

    This post might be one of my favorites on SSP so far.

  3. This is very well done.  Indeed, it is better than one ever finds from the well-known political pundits.  Thanks.

    Of note, as we go toward the doom and gloom of November, people should keep in mind that the reson so many Dem seats are at risk is because we won so many seats in Republican-leaning districts in 06 and 08.  Indeed, look at the number of Dems in Congress now compared to the highest number of Republicans in Congress when they held the majority.  We could lose around 25 seats in November and still have a larger majority than the EVER had.  

    One aspect of the equation of seats at risk this fall that concerns me is that so many districts were drawn to favor the R’s after the last census.  That’s a major reason Hasert and DeLay kept power for so long.  All things equal, that should mean that an equal number of votes for the two parties gives the R’s the most wins.  Of course, districts have changed, but we were taken to the cleaners in the post-2000 redistricting in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, and Texas.  Unfortunately, the state races this year will set up the next round.  

  4. This is exactly the kind of analysis that you wont find on Cook, Rothenberg or anywhere else and is why SSP is my favorite blog.

    Even for a political junkie like myself, there were some big suprises. Who knew Rick Santorum occupied a congressional seat that was that Democratic? (I had to look this up on Wikipedia – he ousted a congressman who apparently lived outside the district and had gone “Washington”).  

  5. there are always some surprises — and interestingly, in 1994 there was one surprise where a previously GOP-held seat (I think it was GOP for like 40 or 50 years up to that point) almost flipped to the Democrats: CA-22 (at the time it corresponded almost exactly to Santa Barbara & San Luis Obispo counties combined) … it was an open seat in 1994, as Michael Huffington was running for the Senate.  The Republican Andrea Seastrand beat Democrat Walter Capps by only 49.3 – 48.5 (margin of 1563 votes); so basically a Democrat almost won this very GOP (at the time) seat from the GOP in 1994 ! (Bob Dole carried that district by a hundred or maybe several hundred votes two years later, btw, but it has very quickly become more & more Democratic over the last 16 years) …

    maybe there will be similar scenarios in November ??  there are some “under the radar” seats like this that should be on our radar this year … CA-3 comes to mind, but there are others too.

  6. I think there very much were plenty of surprises, and your data actually verify that fact.

    Of course “surprise” is a relative term, relative mostly to how long before the election the expectations were set.  I suppose if you had access to everyone’s internal polling a couple weeks out, there would have been virtually no surprises.  But if you set expectations in, say, July, then you would have been shocked by just who lost.

    I don’t know how many “old bulls” have to lose to characterize the number as “many,” but I don’t think it needs to be a lot of ’em.  Off the top of my head, without looking at a list, I think of Neal Smith, Tom Foley the Speaker himself, Rostenkowski, and Jack Brooks……do there need to be anymore?  It’s virtually unheard of for that many senior powerful incumbents of the same party to lose on the same day.  So maybe “many” is a relative term, but that’s “many” to me!

    I do think, too, that it’s understood among campaign junkies and not mischaracterized by the political media that most of the losses came in open seats and through defeated incumbents in red or purple seats.  I don’t think there’s any myth propogating that we lost in liberal seats, or that a gazillion senior incumbents lost.

    The only other thing I’ll point out is that while we have fewer open seats and particularly vulnerable open seats this year than in 1994, we also have a slightly smaller majority than we had in 1994.  Of course, the counter-counterpoint is that the country is slightly (only slightly, but clearly slightly) to the left of where it was in 1994, because of demographic change.  But I think the difference in open seats is a big deal, it’s a lot easier to take an open seat than beat an incumbent.

    I’ll be very interested in the subsequent diaries on this topic, an excellent idea by the way and well-executed so far, notwithstanding my own critique of this first piece.

  7. I think that could well be the story here. 28 then and 16 now with only 8 in R+ seats. According to this Dems lost 17 R+ open seats in 1994. And they won 5 D+ open seats with the highest being D+7. There are only three seats in that band open this year. I think it will be ok unless disaster strikes in any of the specials before then.  

  8. That sat in Republican PVI seats? In other words were there any others beyond the 30+ listed here that survived in GOP territory?

  9. I’ve lived in NC-04 since 1989, and I vividly remember when I heard that Fred Heineman (who died last week) defeated David Price.  We were all in shock because Heineman wasn’t considered to be a strong candidate.  However, the Chapel Hill/Durham area of NC-04 was somewhat deflated from the failure to pass Universal Health Care, and as a result Price’s base was somewhat deflated.

    Price won round 2, and since then NC-04 has become much more Democratic.  

  10. so how many seats are we actually going to lose?:)

    my hypothesis has been that in ’94, we had a disgusted, disaffected base – partly from from Clinton appearing to fumble on issues like gays in the military, but mainly because democrats failed to deliver on health care.

    as a result, our people didn’t show up in even their normal off-year numbers.  perhaps this is a myth you will explore or maybe it’s not a myth.  in some ways my question is:  are there “enthusiasm numbers” from ’94 that we can compare?

    also, before we get too comfy with the lower number of vulnerable retirees, does everyone think we are done hearing about retirements this year?

  11. Just curious, how would you have ranked my home district, VT-AL, on the 1994 list? I remember that race pretty well because Bernie Sanders, then the incumbent congressman, won his third term by only 3%, 50% to 47%. I wonder what Vermont’s PVI was at that time.

    Of course, after ’94, Sanders started winning each and every race by at least 60% or more as Vermont became increasingly left-leaning.

  12. you tell me were Lee Hamilton stands on your 1994 list? Believe it or not he had a really tough re-election in 94. I really enjoyed reading this, good job.

  13. Just wondering, did you calculate the PVIs yourself using both the 1988 and 1992 presidential results by district? I remember reading that the Cook PVI was not created until after the 1996 elections, and I thought that the CQ Politics in America and Almanac of American Politics only showed results for the most recent election (in this case it would have been 1992). This is a fantastic article by the way, you really put a lot of work into it. I’m wondering if you could please most more PVIs or at least the PVIs for TX-19, NY-21, NC-01, TX-05, TX-24, and OK-06, those are on my mind at the moment. Thanks!

  14. As a Republican, his district’s PVI in 1994 was D+12, which is incredible considering that Louise Slaughter’s current heavily-Dem seat where Obama got 69% is only a bit more Democratic now at D+15.

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