Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pelosi's Silver Lining: 2010 Isn't 1994 (Part I)

Here's a silver lining for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she fends off challenges to his power from unhappy moderate Democrats. While her party is sure to face defeats in the 2010 midterm election and watch a surge of Republican victories coast to coast, it's wrong to compare the election to 1994. Even a conservative like myself will vouch for that.


Because I don't think the Democrats will loose as many seats as 1994. But I do think it's possible more incumbents than 1994 will be defeated, which will make the defeats hurt so much more. That's right, I think as many as 34 incumbents could be defeated.

First, the good news. Of the lost seats in 1994, including two special elections, twenty-four were open seats. Democrats held onto all open seats in districts where Clinton won over 50% of the vote. I'm willing to concede that Democrats will probably keep open seats where Obama won over 50% of the vote, especially traditionally Democratic seats where Gore and Kerr also won. And I'll concede they only have a few open seats to defend right now. In Louisiana, Charlie Melancon's seat seems like a certain pick up. Pennsylvania's Joe Sestak and New Hampshire's Paul Hodes will be more difficult seats for them to defend and I'm optimistic about the Pennsylvania 7th. And I'll concede some difficulty in defending Mark Kirk's seat in the Illinois 10th. But other than the open seat in Delaware, I don't see much happening in this category of races. For now.

The good news for Nancy Pelosi: open seats could be a wash. Without those twenty-four pickups from open seats the Republicans will have a hard time winning as many seats as they did in 1994.

The bad news for Nancy Pelosi: But the forty or so pickups needed to win back the House of Representatives may actually be possible. The rules from 1994 don't apply in 2010.

I think it's helpful to look back and understand why Republicans were so successful in 1994. The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman provides some insight and offers up a nice chart tracking the win rates for Democrats by district and voting record. Tom Schaller at FiveThirtyEight has it for public consumption but I think Cook's opened up their page as well.

And, as 1994 demonstrated, voting behavior in the House matters back home. As the chart below shows, 33 of the 34 Democrats who lost in 1994 voted for either the tax-increasing Clinton budget package or the Brady handgun bill in 1993, and 19 voted for both. Of the 18 House Democrats who voted for neither of the controversial measures, only one ultimately lost (and that member, Jay Inslee of Washington, hurt his standing later by voting for final passage of the Clinton crime bill, including the Assault Weapons Ban, in August 1994).

Interestingly, David Wasserman uses the Brady handgun bill as his vote for gun control while Real Clear Politic's Sean Trende uses the assault weapons ban. But both looked at how Democratic incumbents with different voting records on taxes and gun control survived 1994. Another difference is that Trende looks at PVI, not Clinton's 1992 vote, so he lists as pro-Democratic some districts were Clinton was under 50%. Given the role of maverick Ross Perot in the politics of the 1990s I prefer Wasserman's use of Clinton's 1992 performance. It gives us an idea of where Perot's voters could swing to the Republican in order to turn the district Republican, even if it had a Democratic tilt in other elections.

Back in 1994, a Democratic Congressman in district where Clinton won over 50% had it pretty much made. Democrats not only defended almost all Democratic incumbents in these Clinton districts but defended all of the open seats in Clinton territory. That Democratic incumbent in Democratic territory that managed to blow it? Corrupt Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski who was Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Democrats retook his seat in 1996 with Rod Blagojevich. Good to see that the Democrats learned their lesson and nominated a more ethical member.

Note that Wasserman has only one Clinton district Democrat defeated, Rostenkowski. Trende has eight incumbents in Democratic PVI districts defeated. In Wasserman's study only 18 House Democrats voted against both Clinton's tax increases and the Brady handgun bill and only one lost, Jay Inslee of Washington. He shot himself in the foot by voting for the Assault Weapons Ban in a Bush district. Trende's other seven Democrats may have been in Democratic PVI districts, but they knew that Clinton was still under 50% in the district in 1992. And none were smart enough to vote more conservatively because of it.

Unlike 1994, even members in Obama districts should be afraid. And I'm not just talking about corrupt Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee. The current Congress has a bumper crop of "Oboomers" where Barack Obama won a surprise victory in 2008 and helped bring some less than viable Democrats across the finish line. One Democratic incumbent in a Obama-district helped by strong African-American turnout is blog favorite Glenn Nye. But other Democrats need to watch their back as well, such as Ohio's Steve Driehaus and North Carolina's Larry Kissell.

Setting aside concerns about corrupt incumbents and "Oboomer" districts going back to their natural Republican tilt, should Nancy Pelosi kick up her high heels and relax about 2010?

Hell no.

But that will wait for Part II.

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