Labor Day means that this year’s elections are only two months away.
Much has been written about efforts by Democrats to retake the House or the Senate this year. Thus it is instructive to take a look back at two recent elections and how they played out in the battle for control of Congress and why.
The first election (1994) resulted in Republicans seizing control of both the House and the Senate. The second election (1996) resulted in Democrats picking up nine seats in the House but falling short of taking control and losing two seats in the Senate.
House Republicans’ unifying document, “The Contract with America,” is often given credit for their stunning 1994 victory; however, there were a number of forces at play that year which led to their success.
First, Democrats had controlled the U.S. House for 40 straight years and controlled the Senate for much of that time. Democrats by then had grown intellectually and operationally sloppy.
Second, Bill Clinton was not a particularly popular president within certain groups (though not nearly as unpopular as the current occupant of the White House).
But there also was one dramatic event late in the Congressional session that turned the tide. The Clinton White House and the Congressional Democratic leadership forced through a highly controversial crime bill that contained a ban on assault weapons.
Thus, a politically tone-deaf administration and an out-of-touch Congressional leadership put members of their own party in a deep hole with key constituencies (rural whites and blue collar suburban workers) which tipped a number of close races.
Could history repeat itself in 2006? The Bush administration and some Republican congressional leaders have backed an immigration bill (with an amnesty provision) that is hugely unpopular with a significant number of key Republican voters in swing congressional districts and in swing Senate races. If the administration attempts to ram this legislation through in the closing days of the session the way the Clinton administration did with the crime bill, the result could be the same.
It can be argued that 1994 is different from 2006 in a very significant way — the Iraq war. However, that does not help Republican efforts to retain control of the Congress because anti-war Democrats are highly motivated to turn out. In this respect, 1994 is like 1974, a year of major Democratic gains because of the Watergate scandal.
Republicans will, of course, attempt to make the 2006 elections turn on the war on terror; however, you can only go back to the same well so many times.
Let’s now turn to the 1996 elections. This year does offer hope for Congressional Republicans. Understanding that they were in deep trouble following Speaker Gingrich’s ill-fated effort to close down the government, Republicans leaders that year helped pass an increase in the minimum wage (the last such increase) and welfare reform. Both demonstrated that the party in control could govern and clearly cut into potential Democratic gains.
What do the Republicans have in their bag of tricks this fall? Once again, a minimum wage increase is pending in Congress. However, this time Republicans have tied the increase to an unpopular cut in estate taxes, which benefits a relatively small number of very wealthy voters (most of whom already vote Republican).
Republicans don’t have the votes to pass this package and would have to split out the minimum wage increase as a separate item to get it passed. Opposition within their own party from the small business community will be difficult for Republicans to overcome to pass a stand-alone minimum wage increase.
This brings us to the other piece of what happened in 1996. Do the Republicans have anything comparable to welfare reform that would demonstrate a real ability to govern? Nothing immediately comes to mind. The public wants affordable health insurance but there is no consensus on this subject on the horizon.
Money is the other interesting factor in this year’s elections. Republicans were able to hold onto Congress in 1996 by outspending Democrats by more than 2-1. Aggressive fundraising by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chair Chuck Schumer has substantially closed the gap.
In one of the great ironies of this election, the Republican National Committee (RNC) apparently will have to divert funds from House races where it clearly is needed to cover the lackluster fundraising efforts of Libby Dole, the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Thus, desperately needed Republican dollars may shore up Republican control of the Senate but will not be available to stem the tide as Republicans fight to maintain control of the House.
When I served as Chairman of the DCCC in 1996 and 1998, I always told my staff that no two elections are alike and they needed to make decisions based on what was happening that year and not based on something that happened in a previous campaign cycle.
While that remains true, it is interesting to note the parallels with 1994 and 1996. History rarely repeats itself but sometimes it comes close.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.