Republican victories in 1994, 2010 are not the same

Published 10:29 am Saturday, November 20, 2010

by Rhodes Cook

The memorable Republican victories of 1994 and 2010 are already linked as the two largest midterm landslides of the last half century. But one was not a duplicate of the other.

The GOP came out of this year’s election with more seats in the House of Representatives than it did 16 years ago, but short of the total the party amassed then in Senate seats and governorships. And while Republicans captured both the Senate and House in 1994, this year they won only the House.

Yet in each of the landslides they emerged with a clear majority of the nation’s governorships and scored healthy gains in state legislative races — both particularly important these days on the eve of the next round of congressional redistricting.

In short, while there are similarities between the two elections, there are notable differences as well.

On the House side, Republicans gained a net of 52 seats in 1994, which lifted their total to 230. This year, they have already registered a net gain of 60 House seats, with several races to be decided.

As of Nov. 15, the GOP total of House seats in the 112th Congress stood at 239. That is already the highest number in Republican hands since the 80th Congress (1947-49), which was famously labeled during the 1948 campaign as the “do nothing 80th Congress” by President Harry Truman. Conversely, the present Democratic total of 190 House seats is the lowest House total for the party since the same point in the Truman presidency — a nadir that cannot be overcome even by favorable outcomes in the remaining undecided races.

On the Senate side, however, Republicans did not do as well this time as they did in 1994. Then, they gained eight seats on Election Night, a number that swelled to nine the following day when Sen. Richard Shelby switched his party affiliation to the winning side. That brought the GOP total to 53 seats. Republicans elected new senators in all regions of the country in 1994, including a pair in Tennessee, where Bill Frist (a future Senate majority leader) and Fred Thompson (a future presidential candidate) were both elected.

This year, the Republican Senate advance was capped at 47 seats, a pickup of six. The GOP easily ousted Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, the only Democratic seat in the South up for grabs in 2010. And Republicans won five Democratic seats across the Frost Belt from Pennsylvania to North Dakota.

But they hit a Democratic “firewall” when they tried to push beyond the Great Plains. Democratic incumbents held on to vulnerable seats in California, Colorado, Washington and Nevada — the latter probably the most symbolically important of the group. There, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held off “Tea Party” favorite, Sharron Angle. For Democrats, it was a significant reversal of fortune from the pro-Republican election of 2004, when Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle was beaten for re-election in South Dakota.

Nor did the Republicans fare as well in gubernatorial contests this year as they had in 1994. They posted a net gain of 11 that election, bringing their total to 30. In 2010, the GOP has registered a gross pickup of 11 governorships, but its gains were partially offset by a Democratic comeback on the two coasts.

Governorships in Connecticut and Vermont shifted to the Democrats as did those in Hawaii and California, the nation’s most populous state. Democrats could pick up another governorship in Minnesota, where the race is headed to a recount with Democrat Mark Dayton leading by about 9,000 votes. In the meantime, the total of Republican governorships stands at 29, one short of the number they held after the 1994 election.

RHODES COOK is a senior columnist for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which features detailed analysis for elections across the country. Cook can be reached at