The political world and the media are transfixed by Tuesday’s special election in the Georgia district formerly represented by Rep. Tom Price, who gave up his seat to become secretary of Health and Human Services. The Republicans had been expected to easily win this reliably red seat in the Atlanta suburbs. But polls have suggested that one of the Democratic candidates, a 30-year-old film-maker named Jon Ossoff, is within range of getting 50 percent of the vote against a large field of Republicans, winning the seat outright and avoiding a runoff.
There is some anxiety in the GOP’s ranks. Last week, a Republican candidate won a seven-point victory in a deep-red Kansas House district that should have seen a far bigger victory margin. The Kansas results and Ossoff’s strong polling heading into the election have raised the prospect that the 2018 midterms could see a wave that Democrats ride to take back the House. Since 1954, the House has changed hands a mere three times. But the flip years — 1994, 2006, 2010 — suggest both the promise of 2018 and its perils for House Democrats.
John Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was a senior House staffer for all three of those wave elections, and he argues that “these ‘wave’ elections share some obvious features that might be replicated in 2018.” But he warns that it is far too early to know, and Democrats still face formidable challenges. The 2010 redistricting process created many safe Republican seats that will be hard for Democrats to pick off. And the post-Citizens United landscape, in which congressional races are awash in outside money, can also help Republicans defend their seats, Lawrence points out.
While the attention is on the outcome in Georgia, the midterm elections next year will be shaped by bigger forces. Partisan fury at a president created the climate that made the three previous waves possible, and a series of factors — congressional ethics scandals, an unpopular war, controversial landmark health care reform — set the template for dozens of members from the opposition to win seats that few observers thought would be vulnerable. As Lawrence, the author of the forthcoming The Class: Rebels, Reformers and the Rise of Partisanship in the Post-Watergate Congress, put it: “The similarities in the ‘waves’ of 1994, 2006, and 2010 include divided government, a president who seemingly is not delivering on key pledges or has alienated swing voters on a key issue, and a message-focused and well-funded minority intent on gaining the majority.”
The 1994 story is probably the most interesting, as Republican flamethrower Newt Gingrich campaigned on a “Contract With America” that helped the GOP end four decades of Democratic dominance in the House and seized on a decades-in-the-making Republican surge across the states of the Old Confederacy. President Bill Clinton’s unpopular stances — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise policy on gays serving in the military, his 1993 budget raising taxes on the wealthy, the failure of his health care reform bill, an assault weapons ban — fed the image that Clinton’s was a chaotic and overly liberal White House at odds with his more centrist campaign pledges.
Gingrich also exploited the Democratic majority’s ethical weak spots — Speaker Jim Wright’s 1989 ouster under an investigatory cloud and the 1992 House bank scandal, to cite two instances. Gingrich seized the advantage in an evermore jaundiced political climate, in which the media was eager to report on corruption in politics, and the House minority was able to use the issue for partisan gain. Gingrich nationalized the campaign by pledging to enact a set of simple proposals to reform the way the House did business and drain the Washington swamp.
President George W. Bush won a close reelection campaign in 2004 partly owing to his handling of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But two years later, as the war in Iraq spun into a bloody civil war with American soldiers dying in greater numbers and with no “mission accomplished” in sight, House Democrats led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recruited moderate candidates to run in swing districts. A “culture of corruption” — superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and GOP congressmen Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and Mark Foley were all tarred with the brush of scandal — bolstered the Democratic case. Pelosi tied the scandals to the GOP leadership, charging it with corruption or inaction, and pledged to pass lobbying reforms that the Republican majority had stymied. Bush’s unpopular proposal to privatize Social Security incurred the voters’ wrath too.
On election eve 2006, President Bush’s approval rating stood at 38 percent. While that number was hardly stellar, Bush’s unpopularity by itself was not enough to put the Democrats into the House majority. Similarly, in early November 2010, Obama’s approval rating, which stood at a far-from-terrible 45 percent, wouldn’t have predicted the 63-seat shellacking administered by John Boehner’s Republicans that year. It’s important to recall that only 39.9 percent of “voting-eligible” Americans cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections, and that year’s wave can partially be explained by a highly motivated GOP base and a dispirited Democratic Party. The Tea Party and other Republican organizers seized on the passage of Obamacare and a $787 billion stimulus bill to push Republicans to the right and motivate Republicans to vote. The short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement on the left chanted slogans in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan; the more influential Tea Party movement organized politically district by district, helping deeply conservative candidates to gain House seats.
Regardless of whether Ossoff wins Tuesday, Lawrence urges caution “about predicting ‘wave’ elections this far in advance. … It is arguable that the outcomes [in 1994 and 2006] were more influenced by voter desires to send an early message of displeasure to the recently elected president, or by congressional scandals that soured the public … and created a receptive mood for a message of reform.”
“These conditions could be replicated in 2018,” he adds, “although it remains unclear whether the distorted districts and financial influences will allow the kind of ‘wave’ we have previously witnessed. … Unless Donald Trump and congressional Republicans find their legislative footing, they will go into the 2018 election with all the symptoms that typically motivate voters to ‘send a message’ to unresponsive or unproductive majorities; a scandal or military misstep could tip the scales further towards Democrats, who nevertheless must still recruit top-flight and well-funded candidates and a well-honed message that appeals not just to the base but to the persuadable moderate and independent voters. But ultimately, it is likely to be those gerrymandered districts that serve as the Republicans’ security blanket for 2018.” That structural factor, Lawrence concludes, will compete with the possibility of an “unpredictable crisis that is the Democrats’ best hope for a ‘wave’ restoration to the majority.”
Matthew Dallek is an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. His most recent book is Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.
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