Let’s start with the main features of 1998: (1) no one in the press gave us a chance of picking up seats that year (2) we were outspent by the Republicans two and a half to one (3) Republicans were hot on the impeachment trail of Bill Clinton and (4) it was an off-presidential year when turnout generally favors Republicans.
So how did we beat the odds?
First, we had a terrific recruiting year. Three of our prized recruits that year – Mark Udall in Colorado, Tom Udall in New Mexico and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin – are now members of the U.S. Senate, and one Jay Inslee has just been elected Governor of Washington. Other long-time members first elected in 1998 and still serving include John Larson of Connecticut, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Mike Capuano of Massachusetts and Joe Crowley of New York.
We put together a African-American turnout program in southern and border states headed by Congressman Charlie Rangel and Donna Brazile before she was the nationally known Donna Brazile of today.
We focused our limited resources nationally on voter turnout when the other side was spending its money on television.
We protected our incumbents, losing only one seat where a Democratic congressman was running for re-election.
Finally, we got some breaks. These included the very talented Lois Capps winning a seat in Republican territory in a special election in California early in the year following the death of her husband and then holding it in the general election. Also, Rush Holt won a heavily Republican seat in New Jersey when the GOP incumbent tried to sing a parody (off-key) on the floor of the House which was replayed heavily in local media. Also, the DCCC was able to persuade a liberal candidate who couldn’t win the conservative first district of California to step aside in favor of the more moderate Mike Thompson who won the general election.
And, much to the chagrin of many in his own party, GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich chose as his closing election argument the need to impeach President Clinton after that issue had largely run its course.
There are some differences between 1998 and 2014. The press is more receptive to the idea that Democrats have a chance of beating the six year itch. Also, Democrats are much more competitive financially than we were in 1998. And, Republicans seem locked in a death spiral and unable to quiet their far right wing on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, and abortion rights. With the exception of the impeachment issue which turned out to be a negative, Republicans were somewhat better positioned on the issues in 1998.
Aspects which favor Republicans in 2014 include the fact that Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to take back the majority (rather just winning five as we did in 1998) and it is certainly possible that turnout will be more favorable to the GOP this time than it was in 1998. Also, the Republican gerrymander of congressional districts (concentrating African-Americans heavily in as few districts as possible) has taken out of play a number of previously swing seats in the South and Border States.
However, it would be wrong to totally right off the chances for Democrats to again beat the six year itch n 2014.
The national congressional generic polls are running heavily against the GOP. The public hates the current congressional deadlock and it certainly possible that the GOP could be on the receiving end of a “throw the bums out” wave if Congress has another unproductive two years.
It’s way too early to make a prediction right now. But don’t count the Democrats out. We had a 100 year flood in 1998 and we could have another one in 2014.
Frost is a former representative from Texas and former chairman of the DCCC.