'94 election looms over '06

This time, it's Democrats accusing Republicans of abusing power


WASHINGTON -- Nearly a dozen years ago, an angry and motivated minority accused House Democrats of corruption, arrogance and disdain for voters.

Republican candidates offered a plan for the future and promised to curb the power of a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.

As a result, in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, a historic 51-seat swing in power.

Today, Democrats are the ones accusing the Republican majority of abusing their power, and they are pointing to the ethical troubles of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and White House officials Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to bolster their case.

The year 1994 hangs over the looming political season of 2006.

Polling data show that voters are unhappy with Congress in a way that is similar to the situation that set up the 1994 turnover. According to a New York Times/CBS poll in May 1993, 27 percent of the public approved of the job Congress was doing. This past May, congressional approval was 29 percent.

Democrats say the public will hold the party in power accountable. They say voters are angry at a government controlled by one party. In addition, they say, even the Republican base feels frustrated and dejected.

"All the chemistry for a big election is beginning to take shape," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans scoff at the possibility that Democrats could topple solidly entrenched House incumbents. The architect of the 1994 turnover, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, says complaints of scandal alone will not yield the results that Democrats are hoping for.

"I think people exaggerate the role that particular strategy had," Gingrich said, noting that Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright resigned in 1989 under an ethical cloud and Democrats were able to maintain control of the House in 1990 and 1992.

Still, Gingrich and other Republicans acknowledge that voters are unhappy about the budget deficit, the war in Iraq, increasing energy prices and the failure of the federal government to adequately respond to Hurricane Katrina.

"We've had a bad three months, so it's a dangerous period for us," Gingrich said, adding, "We have to change, or we run the risk of defeat."

In the House, Republicans dismiss their Democratic challengers as lacking big ideas such as the theme they struck in 1994, the Contract With America.

"The only part of the formula they have going for them right now is some of our people are ethically challenged," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "The rest of it doesn't fit. They don't have ideas, they don't have people on our side retiring.

"We haven't controlled the place for 40 years," LaHood says. "If the election were two weeks from today or three weeks from today, we'd have big problems. Fortunately it's a year from now."

Craig Smith, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton White House operative, calls on Democrats to come up with a vote-rallying plan.

"The American public is not going to turn over the keys to us unless we have something to offer," Smith says.

Nonpartisan political analysts give points to both parties for understanding the similarities and differences with 1994.

Stuart Rothenberg, for example, says the mood of the nation is strikingly similar to the mood in 1993.

"If the country is dissatisfied with the direction of the leadership, the direction of the country, dissatisfied with the president's performance, frustrated with the inaction or action coming out of Congress, voters tend to respond to a `time for change' message," Rothenberg said.

At the same time, Rothenberg and Amy Walter at The Cook Political Report note that the number of competitive House seats doesn't come close to what was in play in 1994.

In August of 1993, The Cook Political Report listed 89 seats as being competitive. Today, it lists 28 seats.

Still, Walter says, Democrats don't need nearly as many seats - 15 - as Republicans did in 1994 to retake the House. "You could not have a better political environment to recruit in for Democrats," Walter said.

But Democrats would have to pull off a difficult feat, suggests Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee: winning 15 of 17 competitive GOP-held seats and not losing any of 11 competitive Democrat-held seats.

Numerically, Democrats don't have enough opportunities to turn the tide, Reynolds says, and the indictment of DeLay is unlikely to resonate to the disadvantage of other House Republicans.

Yet the party that controls the White House in a midterm election tends to lose House seats, and Reynolds acknowledges that the GOP "has more exposure."

Polling data are hardly encouraging for the party but speak well for individual legislators.

"They're not overly happy with the president; they're not overly happy with what the Congress is doing, however they love their congressman," Reynolds said, and the fact that voters like their own representative should serve the GOP well.

One thing both sides agree on: It's too soon to say what will happen more than a year from now.

LaHood said, "We've got lots of time, lots of good ideas."

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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