What A Long Strange Trip It's Been
How The Past Decade Has Transformed
The Face Of American Politics
By Charlie Cook
Lost amid the hubbub about the coming millennium is the event of a truly remarkable decade in American politics coming to an end. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are in fundamentally different shape now than 10 years earlier. While no one knows where American politics is headed, it's imperative to see where we have been to fully understand where we are today.
The decade began with split party dominance of our political institutions. Republicans had won four of the five preceding presidential elections but Democrats dominated everything else. Democrats controlled the House for the past 40 years and for 58 of the 67 years since Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932. Only slightly less impressive, Democrats controlled the Senate for 34 out of the last 40 years and 52 of the 67 years since Roosevelt's election. Aside from brief surges when Republicans held a majority of the governorships in 1953-54 during the Eisenhower Administration and 1968-70 during the Nixon Administration, Republicans were largely shut out gubernatorially as well.
At the beginning of the decade, there seemed little reason to believe that this state of affairs would change. Historically Republicans had been unsuccessful in their attempts to seize control at the congressional and state level. A recession in 1958 foiled a Republican effort to leverage presidential successes for downballot offices. In 1973 and 1974, Watergate set back Republicans at a time when they could have reached parity below the presidential level, causing their only presidential loss during the two-decade stretch between 1968 and 1988. The 1982 recession similarly derailed the "Reagan Revolution," which had been threatening to end Democratic dominance.
Republican optimists argued that eventually an opportunity for Republican dominance would not be foiled by some weird twist of fortune, but others felt it was fated that Republicans would never reach parity. In late 1989 or 1990, during a cocktail party conversation I heard someone ask, "What do you think will happen first, Republicans elect a speaker or Democrats elect a president?" After a hearty round of guffaws, someone suggested that once one event transpired, the other would probably follow. That's exactly what happened.
While the champagne at 1992 Democratic victory parties was still bubbling, something far more ominous for the party was brewing. Congressional Democrats entered the 1990s with attitudes of arrogance about their power, particularly in the House, and the righteousness of their cause. These factors blinded them to a changing tide in public opinion. There was also a stream of scandals that actually began in 1989: the House Bank and Post Office, Keating Five, Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, David Durenberger and Brock Adams, to name a few. Not all, but most of the culprits were Democrats, bringing public opinion about Capitol Hill to a level of contempt and derision. The "time for a change" sentiment building around the country was palpable. What wasn't certain was whether it would be targeted generically at incumbents or be party specific.
These scandals began to take their toll about the same time that Bill Clinton won the presidency. Democrats were already starting to suffer some downballot losses, minor ones in the House and even a handful at the state legislative level. In 1992 Democrats lost 10 seats in the House even as Clinton won. The losses began to spread to the Senate in an early 1993 special Senate election, where a Republican was chosen to replace Texan Lloyd Bentsen, who had been named secretary of Treasury. It was during those early months of 1993 that Clinton, who had run as a moderate "New Democrat," and his party took a hard pivot to the left. The rest is history. In the 1994 election, Democrats suffered devastating losses in the Senate, House and gubernatorial races and even all the way down to local-level offices. In just two elections in 1992 and 1994, the Republican share of the Senate grew from 44% to 53%, the House from 39% to 53%, governorships from 42% to 60% and state legislative seats nationwide from 39% to 48%.
In 1992 and 1994, Democrats lost a total of 50 House incumbents, excluding party switchers: 16 in 1992, 34 in 1994. Republicans lost only eight incumbents during those same elections. Thirty-three open Democratic seats fell to Republicans, while only 12 Republican seats fell to Democrats. In short, Democrats dropped from 61% of the House to 47%. The bottom didn't fall out of the Senate until 1994, when Democrats dropped two incumbents and six open seats, a net loss of 11 seats including the 1993 Texas special and subsequent party switches by Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Richard Shelby.
The story was much the same in the state Capitols. After the 1996 election, Democrats had only 17 governorships, precisely half of the 34 they had a decade earlier; in 1976 they had 36 and in 1966 33. Democrats lost full control of five state legislatures in the 1992 election. They lost six more after the 1994 wave. Not since 1948 had one party lost so many House seats as Democrats did in 1994. At the state legislative level, it was the worst defeat for either party since the Republican Watergate disaster in 1974 and the Goldwater debacle a decade earlier. The Democratic domination of American politics below the presidential level that began with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 had officially ended.
Today we have parity --- two evenly matched parties, with an electorate that doesn't trust either. Voters seem content to swing back and forth, punishing a party in one election, the other party in the next election, switching and splitting tickets almost on a whim. Republicans have a fairly comfortable 55-45 edge in the Senate, which gives them control but not really a working majority; they are still five seats short of a filibuster-proof Senate. Republicans still dominate the governorships, 31 to 17, but they lost the grand prize in 1998, California. Republicans hold onto the House by just six seats, 223 to 212, 51% to 49%.
Democrats have the upper hand in party identification, as well as in the state legislatures, albeit very narrowly. Gallup Organization polling of over 10,000 adults during the first quarter of 1999 indicated that 34% of Americans call themselves Democrats, 28% self-identify as Republicans while 38% call themselves independents. According to Gallup, since the beginning of the Clinton Administration, independents have consistently outpaced Democrats by three to four points while Democrats have usually run five to six points ahead of Republicans. In the state legislatures, Democrats control both chambers in 20 states, compared to 19 for Republicans, with split control in 10 states. Democrats also maintained a similarly narrow 1,016-913 edge in state Senate seats, and a 2,866-2,550 edge in state House seats, comprising a 52%-48% Democratic advantage in state legislative seats nationwide.
More than immediate political influence and bragging rights, the change from the early 1980s carries significance for the future. For many years, what helped perpetuate Democratic rule was their claim on a broader and deeper bench of elected office-holders than Republicans. All other things being equal, someone who has already won an election is more likely to win an election again. For years, Democrats dominated most state legislatures as well as municipal and county offices, and held the House to such a degree that Republicans often had to run candidates who had either never won an election or had never run. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time it didn't.
Now the Democratic edge is gone in the House and almost gone in the state legislatures, eliminating that Democratic seed-corn advantage. Now entrenched Republican incumbents need to be dislodged in governorships and Senate seats more often than ensconced Democrats.
What offers Democrats hope is that Republicans in 18 states pushed through term limitations for state legislators in 1995, which potentially puts Republican state legislative majorities in jeopardy in coming years. Term limits make the bodies more erratic, or more dynamic -- depending upon your perspective -- than ever before. Youthful and relatively inexperienced majority and minority leaders have now replaced the crusty, cigar-chomping pols of days gone by, but even these new faces will only be passing through, forced to seek other offices often after just six or eight years.
In short, the next decade in American politics will be dramatically different from the previous ones because of the fundamental changes that occurred during the 1990s. The Republican Party grew to be every bit the match of the Democrats, with term limitations almost insuring instability and change unless they are repealed.
The 2000 Elections
Tip O'Neill only had it half right when he said "all politics is local." A more accurate characterization might be that "all politics is local, except when it isn't." In roughly two-thirds of our elections, local issues, individual candidates and specific circumstances are paramount. However, in another third, an invisible hand holds back the candidates of one party and pushes forward those of the other. Go tell a Republican candidate who lost or nearly lost during the recession of 1958, the Goldwater debacle of 1964, the Watergate election of 1974 or the recession of 1982 that all politics is local. Or tell a Democrat, who was pummeled in the 1966 recession, the 1980 Reagan landslide or the 1994 tsunami, the same. In all of these situations most of the candidates of one party started plunging in the polls while those of the other party began climbing for no rational, local reason. They were victims of a nationalized election.
More complicated are the "change-up" elections, when there is a sudden change in direction or momentum in the closing days of the campaign. This change almost instantaneously affects races from coast to coast without respect to circumstances. In 1996 for example, both national and district polls suggested that Democrats were headed for big gains, perhaps winning back the House. However, that momentum disappeared in the last two weeks of the campaign. Recall the 1990 election when Democrats seemed to be headed for fairly substantial gains after President Bush broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, but a last-minute focus on mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf shifted public attention enough to keep Republican losses minimal. More recently, Republicans seemed headed for modest gains in 1998 until a last minute anti-impeachment shift allowed the Democrats to hold their own in the Senate and pick up five seats in the House, confounding even the most optimistic of their own strategists.
The question on everyone's mind is whether that invisible hand will make an appearance in November 2000 and if so, where? Immediately after Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial had concluded, polling suggested that Republicans had suffered badly from the entire affair. Indeed, the generic Congressional ballot test measuring partisan preference gave Democrats a six- to 10-point advantage. An election at that point almost certainly would have resulted in Democrat's winning control of the House and perhaps substantial gains in the Senate. By May however, that Democratic advantage had disappeared, as had the probability, but not the possibility, that Democrats would recapture the House majority they lost in 1994 or make any huge Senate gains. In fact, the seat exposure for the two parties is almost perfectly symmetrical.
As of early June, each party had about a half dozen House seats in extreme jeopardy and about two dozen more that were either competitive or could easily become competitive. Democrats had three freshmen incumbents in real danger, Shelley Berkley (NV-01), Rush Holt (NJ-12) and Joe Hoeffel (PA-13), plus second-term Congressman Jim Maloney (CT-05) and an open seat in Michigan's 8th District where Debbie Stabenow is stepping down to run for the Senate.
Republicans should be most concerned with freshmen Robin Hayes (NC-08) and Don Sherwood (PA-10), who both barely won in 1998 and likely will face rematches in 2000; veteran Richard Baker (LA-06), who also faces a return engagement against a candidate who held him to just 51%, also warrants some concern. Jim Rogan (CA-27), who gained considerable national exposure as one of the most able and outspoken of the House managers prosecuting President Clinton will face a strong opponent in a very marginal district. Rounding out the most vulnerable Republican list are two open seats, Oklahoma's 2d District, where Tom Coburn is retiring, and Washington's 2d District, where Jack Metcalf is also stepping down.
At this admittedly early stage in the 2000 campaign, there appears to be an unusually low number of competitive races, even lower than in 1990 and 1998, when the House playing field was exceedingly narrow. The final, pre-election issues of The Cook Political Report in 1992 showed 152 competitive races, a whopping 94 we listed as toss-ups. In 1994 there were 138 competitive races including 73 toss-ups, while in 1996 there were 119 competitive races, 57 of which were toss-ups. In 1998, the number of competitive races had dwindled to 62, with just 26 toss-ups, almost as low as in 1990 when there were 44 competitive contests, and 27 toss-ups.
There is no single reason for this decline in competition, though the rising cost of campaigns is certainly a major factor. There are also fewer Democrats sitting in what should be Republican seats, particularly in the southern and mountain states, just as there are fewer Republicans sitting in traditionally Democratic seats; most specifically in the Northeast but to a lesser extent in the Midwest. Both parties have consolidated in their strongest states and districts, providing fewer opportunities for takeovers. With the limits on party spending on individual candidates effectively removed, more party resources will likely be funneled into fewer races in 2000. This will concentrate the competition and create a small number of House races that will resemble smaller state Senate races in spending and sophistication. In the old days, national party committees ranked their target races from top to bottom; starting at the top of the list, they would "max out" by providing the maximum level of support for the top race. They would go down the list until they finally ran out of money somewhere near the middle. With the caps effectively removed, and with parties moving more into issue advocacy and independent expenditure advertising, more money will likely flow into the top races, meaning that funds will run out before the middle of the list.
The greatest focus in the House will be on open seats, as the incumbent re-election rate remains high, averaging 93.9% from 1980-98, ranging from a low of 88.3% in 1992 to a high of 98.3% in 1988 and the same in 1998. The greatest volatility in the House almost always comes in years with large numbers of open seats.
With few competitive races and open seats, the challenge for Democrats to score a net gain of six seats in the absence of some kind of momentum will be great. When elections are held on level playing fields, parties tend to suffer offsetting seat losses, making it difficult to accumulate big net gains. A net gain of six would be a far reach for 2000. Should Democrats develop some momentum, however, as they did at the close of the 1998 campaign, then gaining six would be highly possible, if not likely. The narrow playing field means Democrats have to win just over 60% of the 57 competitive races, which is certainly possible, but a tall order. Democrats don't need a major nationalization of the election, but they probably will need some boost of momentum, rather than individual race developments, to get them over the top.
Nothing in politics is ever impossible, giving Democrats some hope of recapturing control of the Senate, but it would take a major nationalization of the race in their favor to have any real chance. There are 19 Republican seats up for grabs in 2000, compared to only 14 for Democrats, who have four seats in immediate danger, compared to three for Republicans. Democrats need a lot of breaks to pick up the five seats if they hold the White House (a Democratic vice president can break the tie) or the six seats if they don't.
At the top of Democrats' target lists will be open Republican seats in Florida and Rhode Island, where Connie Mack and John Chafee are retiring. Next comes Missouri where Republican incumbent John Ashcroft is facing a stiff challenge from Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan in what is sure to be a very competitive race. In Michigan, freshman Republican Spence Abraham will face a very formidable adversary in Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow, the star recruit for Democrats so far this cycle. (Carnahan needed no recruiting.) Both Rod Grams in Minnesota and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania appear to be very vulnerable but it's uncertain whether Democrats will nominate a top-tier candidate who will be up to the challenge in either race. In Washington, Slade Gorton always seems to face tough re-elections though Democrats have some unity problems at this writing. Democrats are anxiously awaiting decisions from Governor Tom Carper whether he will take on five-term Senator Bill Roth in Delaware and whether independent (but functionally a Democrat) Bernie Sanders will take on Jim Jeffords in Vermont. Both Carper and Sanders would be formidable challengers if they run, otherwise, the incumbent senators will be re-elected easily.
Republicans have their sights set on three Democratic open seats and one incumbent. First come the three "N's," Nevada where Dick Bryan is retiring, New Jersey where Frank Lautenberg is stepping down and New York, where the venerable Daniel Patrick Moynihan is not seeking a fifth-term. In Nevada, former Republican Congressman John Ensign, who came within 428 votes of unseating Senator Harry Reid in 1998, is almost certain to be the Republican nominee in 2000, while Democrats will likely field state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. Both are proven vote-getters and Nevada is increasingly becoming a competitive state though Del Papa has strained relations with organized labor, which undercut her chances somewhat. The Republican nod in New Jersey will be going to outgoing Governor Christie Todd Whitman, with the Democratic nomination still very much up in the air. Former Governor Jim Florio is running, seeking to avenge his 1991 re-election loss to Whitman, but Congressman Frank Pallone is also looking seriously at running, as is Jon Corzine, the very wealthy, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs.
In New York, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is edging closer to entering the race. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani seems all but announced to run on the Republican side. Late Spring polls show Clinton and Giuliani running roughly even when matched head-to-head. However, complicating matters for Giuliani, Republican Congressman Rick Lazio seems fairly determined to run, and is likely to both challenge Giuliani for the Republican nomination and seek the Conservative Party line. While Giuliani would certainly be favored to win the primary, Lazio could make it a race, given Giuliani's active campaigning for the much-hated (at least among Empire State Republicans) Mario Cuomo in 1994, his support for a New York City commuter tax and for partial-birth abortions. At the least, Lazio could soften Giuliani among Republicans. Many New York insiders say Lazio has the Conservative line all but wrapped up. The remaining question is whether Clinton could be beaten if Giuliani, carrying the Republican and possibly the Liberal Party lines, Lazio the Conservative line, and possibly a Right-to-Life candidate are in the race. Regardless, the presidential race is likely to share top billing with the New York Senate race.
Rounding out the list of vulnerable Democrats is Virginia's Charles Robb, who will face a very tough challenge from former Gov. George Allen. Early polls show Allen running well ahead but most observers expect the race to tighten once the fighting starts.
All-in-all, 2000 promises to be the most exciting election in recent memory: a "double-open" (no incumbent) presidential race, control of the House teetering on the edge and a complement of hotly-contested Senate races, which could include the Senate fight of the century in New York. Not a bad way to end an exciting decade and to begin a new millennium.
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