For House Democrats, a Whiff of Victory

House Democrats do not usually like to talk about 1994, the year of their exile into the minority. It has been a bad memory, best left undisturbed.

But in a changing political climate, some Democrats are now taking a new look at their least favorite year and finding some heartening parallels with the current one. Democratic leaders say they believe they are poised to reverse the surprise Republican takeover of 1994, particularly if a continuing slip in public support for President Bush puts a breeze at their back.

"If that wind comes," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, "we are much, much better positioned than the Republicans were in 1994 to take the seats that we need to take back control."

Mr. Hoyer argues that Democrats have more top candidates than the Republicans did in 1994, and need to gain fewer seats: 12, as against 38. He also says his party's contenders are in a much better financial position than those ascendant Republicans were.

Further, Mr. Hoyer and other Democrats see in public opinion surveys the beginnings of a growing sentiment for change, the very thing that helped do in the Democrats and make Newt Gingrich speaker of the House.

"We are in a strong position to capitalize on that," said Kori Bernards, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans are not quite ready to hand over the gavel. They point to changes in Congressional maps that have made districts much less competitive in the intervening 10 years. And that does not count those in Texas, where the new map has several Democratic incumbents in serious trouble.

The Republicans also say Democrats have not shown an ability to knock off veteran Republican incumbents even in districts that otherwise lean Democratic, a feat they would have to accomplish in places like Kentucky and Connecticut to have a real chance at taking back the House.

"Democrats have an obligation to manufacture some momentum to make it not appear as hopeless as it really is," said Carl Forti, the spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It is going to be very difficult for them to win the House back outside of some national tidal wave that right now isn't there."

To be sure, there are flaws in Mr. Hoyer's comparing 2004 to 1994. The earlier election was at midterm, when the party in the White House is typically expected to lose seats. President Bill Clinton was on the defensive over his failed health care initiative, and House Democrats, entrenched for 40 years, were on the defensive over Republican accusations that they had become corrupt.

Besides all that, there were more than 50 open House seats in 1994, lessening the advantages of the incumbent majority, compared with 30 this year. And Democrats were defending the seats of many freshmen, who among all incumbents are usually the most endangered.

It all added up to a watershed moment in Congressional politics.

Yet there is little doubt that Democratic election prospects are better today than they were just a few months ago. Even as Mr. Bush's policy in Iraq has encountered trouble both there and at home, Democrats have successfully recruited credible candidates for challenges in Alabama, Minnesota, North Carolina and elsewhere. The new campaign finance law has not hamstrung party operations to the extent some predicted. And surveys have shown an increasing general preference for Democrats in Congress at a time when the minority has enjoyed some unexpected Republican retirements.

If the Democrats can win a House election in South Dakota next Tuesday, the party will be two for two this year in capturing Republican seats in special elections, a factor providing a valuable sense of momentum.

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of Congressional races, acknowledges that the picture has brightened for Democrats. But he says he still believes they are not quite within reach of House control, mainly because of their need to oust Republican incumbents.

"In getting up to 218," Mr. Rothenberg said of the number required for a majority in the 435-member House, "you don't just need a wave, you need a tsunami."

Still, he recalls that at this stage in 1994, no one thought the Republican wave would wash aside the Democrats.

Ms. Bernards, the spokeswoman for the House Democratic campaign group, said Democrats accepted that not everyone was convinced of the party's threat to the majority. They say they intend to prove it, however, in November.

 

Posted in