In politics, history is not a perfect teacher but it’s often very close.
Republicans are mounting an effort to take back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008. If history is an indicator, they will fall short.
The last comparable situation occurred in 1996. Democrats had lost the House in 1994 after holding it for 40 years. The Democratic Party mounted an all-out effort to re-take the house in one two-year cycle. They gained seats, but not enough to take control. In fact, they had to wait another 10 years before they were finally successful in 2006.
I know very well what happened that year. I was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for the 1996 election cycle.
First, let’s look at what the Republican majority did to retain control between November 1994 and November 1996. They made some of their own breaks. In mid-1995, they convinced five conservative Democrats to switch parties.
They also won a special election in October 1995 when Democrat Norm Mineta resigned from Congress to take a job in private industry. He was replaced by Republican Tom Campbell. Thus, Democrats were six seats deeper in the minority before the first shot was fired in the 1996 elections.
Democrats in 1996 did a good job of recruiting candidates and raising money, but the hill was simply too big to climb. We picked up nine seats in November 1996 but the actual gain from November 1994 to November 1996 was only three because of the party switchers and special election loss. Thus, when the dust settled, Republicans still held 228 seats (10 more than the 218 bare majority).
It is unlikely that any Republicans will switch parties during this cycle, and at this point we don’t have any idea about what additional special elections will be held because of death or retirement (three are currently scheduled but it does not appear that any of these seats will switch party).
It certainly is possible that other special elections could occur as a result of resignations due to scandal, which could put some current Republican seats in jeopardy, but Democrats can’t rely on that happening.
Thus, Democrats must defend their 233-202 margin by re-electing their own current members, by holding Democratic open seats when members retire and by taking seats away from Republicans either by beating Republican incumbents or winning Republican open seats.
Democrats are likely to lose at least a few seats held by freshmen members. During any sweep, there always are a few “accidental” congressmen elected who are destined to serve only one term.
Classic examples from the Republican class of 1994 were Steve Stockman of Texas (who defeated Jack Brooks) and Michael Patrick Flanagan of Illinois (who defeated Dan Rostenkowski). Both lost their re-election bids in 1996.
Interestingly, the congressional out party (Republicans) is in an even deeper hole in 2008 than Democrats were in 1996 because of the general public mood. Democratic congressional candidates in 1996 benefited from the fact that a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) was re-elected that year.
It will take a miracle for the congressional out party (the Republicans) to elect a president in 2008. Thus, there will be no coattails for Republican candidates.
Also, there were a number of Republicans who barely hung on in 2006 and could fall to well-financed Democratic challengers in 2008 (Heather Wilson, Deborah Pryce and several other incumbents in New York and Pennsylvania come to mind). The mess in Iraq already is putting pressure on nervous Republican congressmen from swing districts.
Additionally, the DCCC is doing a good job of making sure that new Democratic members elected from swing districts in 2006 are raising enough money to hold on to their seats in 2008.
It is possible that Republicans will pick up a few seats in 2008 but it is highly unlikely that they could win enough seats to take back the House in a single election. They might even wind up losing seats if the presidential election turns into a rout.
A month is a long time in politics and 18 months is an eternity and, thus, anything can happen. However, no one should bet any serious money on the Republicans taking back the House in 2008. If you find someone who wants to make that bet, send him my way.
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 partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.