How Big a Tide?

posted by Alan Greenblatt As everyone knows, things are also looking grim for Republican control of the U.S. House. Even conservative commentators, such as ...
by | October 20, 2006

posted by Alan Greenblatt

Sadgop_1 As everyone knows, things are also looking grim for Republican control of the U.S. House.

Even conservative commentators, such as Robert Novak, are predicting that the GOP will lose 20 seats -- more than enough for Democrats to take the majority. Our friends and colleagues at CQ, who have a good track record about these things (they were the only ones to predict Democratic gains in 1998), are for the moment predicting a tie, but are casting a dubious eye on more Republican seats every day. Charlie Cook, another veteran observer, says that there are basically no Democratic-held seats in trouble.

The common assumption all year has been that at most 40 seats would be in play, and Democrats would have to win nearly all of them to take control. Now that that's no longer much in doubt, there is debate in national Democratic circles about going into debt to try to put more resources into seats that used to look safe for Republicans.

All of a sudden, there are polls suggesting lots of Republicans in normally safe districts are in deep danger.

There was just a new set of polls, put out by Constituent Dynamics, that suggests Republicans could conceivably lose all but a couple of their seats in New York State. Their polling methodology isn't the greatest. But are they on to something?

The current state of things is very much reminding me of 1994. I know this isn't an original comparison, but you have to remember that even in the weeks leading up to that election, the Republican sweep did not at all look foreordained. Democrats, after all, held 78 more seats than the GOP going into the election.

I remember the late Dave Kaplan, in October of that year, writing a House race preview for CQ hinting that Republicans might in fact gain the majority after a 40-year shutout. But even at that late date, most of the people quoted in his story expected Republicans to win, at most, about 25 seats.

They netted 55. They did so, in large part, by winning seats they seemed to have no business winning.

I worked at CQ at the time and we prepared well more than 100 mini-profiles of prospective new members to run a couple of days after the election. Despite preparing far more profiles than we thought we would really need, trying to cover every long shot, there were still new members of Congress elected that our political staff had essentially never heard of.

About a week before the election, a poll came out suggesting that Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, then constantly referred to as the "powerful" chairman of the "powerful" Ways and Means Committee, was going to lose to somebody named Michael Patrick Flanagan. None of us believed this, questioned the track record of the pollster, etc. But on Election Day, Flanagan came in and Rostenkowski was out.

Of course, Flanagan lost a couple of years later to Rod Blagojevich, who is now the governor of Illinois. That district was too Democratic to vote Republican at any other time than that extraordinary year.

But many other longtime Democratic districts have stayed Republican since. Such is the power of incumbency. Some of those seats, though, are finally ripe for the Democrats to take back this year.

If Democrats are able to pick up other, more surprising seats, some of their new members will doubtless be one-term wonders like Flanagan. Just guessing what will happen next month, though, is enough prognostication for now.