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One Reason 2010 Is Less Favorable for the House GOP Than 1994

My earlier post about redistricting transparency got me to thinking about how redistricting might affect the Republicans’ chances of capturing the US House this fall, which was a big topic of discussion yesterday as a result of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ admission that control of the House is in play this fall. Now, the new House district lines will not take effect until the 2012 cycle—but that’s just my point. To understand what I mean, let’s go back 20 years for a quick review of the events that unfolded prior to the 1994 cycle’s Republican Revolution.

We start in 1992, an election cycle in which one-fourth of the members elected to the 103rd Congress—110 in total—were rookies, making it the largest incoming House class since 1948. According to political scientist John Hibbing, the 110 departing members those freshmen replaced break down as follows: 53 retired outright; 13 opted to run for different office, most of them (11) vying for the Senate; and another 44 lost outright, including 19 who lost their primary re-nomination contests. To be sure, the unusually high retirement rate was partly the result of electorally fatal political damage members suffered as a result of the House check kiting scandal. But some of it was attributable to redistricting. Whatever the reasons for their loss, in addition to the voluntary retirees, 25 members who ran and were re-nominated still lost, and some of these were victims running in newly reconfigured, post-redistricting districts.

Overall, the result of these 110 seat changes was a net gain of 12 seats for the Republicans, which means there were 61 rookie Republicans and 49 rookie Democrats in the 103rd Congress. Those net 12 pickups were not nearly enough for Republicans to seize the Democrats’ majority—but they did help put the GOP in range for the tectonic 1994 midterms. The Newt Gingrich-led Republicans would likely still have captured a House majority in 1994 without that 12-seat head start from 1992—the Democrats at the opening of the 104th Congress had 204 seats, 14 shy of a majority—but the Republican majority would have been thin. Not to mention the GOP in the tailwind year of 1994 benefited from having 49 frosh Democrats to target.

What’s different about the Republicans’ attempt to duplicate their 1994 success is that their tailwind year this time, 2010, arrives one cycle prior to the post-redistricting cycle, 2012, rather than one cycle after. If the wave this November is big enough, of course, the timing won’t make a difference. But the 1992 cycle softened up the House for the 1994 Republican onslaught. Instead, if the GOP this autumn either captures a majority or gets very close, they will then have to hold that majority or try to win the last few seats during a post-redistricting cycle in 2012.

To be clear, Gibbs is right to concede that it’s possible Republicans will capture the House in November. But to the list of factors that presage that happening or not happening—MSNBC’s “First Read” listed four factors favorable to the GOP, four unfavorable—I submit we should add (at least) one more: The events leading up to 1994 and the timing of that cycle were more conducive for a GOP takeover than they are this time around.