No Signs of Turnover Yet

Republicans prematurely prophesy sweeping comeback in 1994 elections

FIRST it was Paul Coverdell in Georgia, then Kay Bailey Hutchinson in Texas and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles.

Barely recovered from the defeat of George Bush in the 1992 presidential election, Republicans began to speculate openly about possible gains in the House of Representatives and prospects for recapturing control of the Senate in 1994.

Then, in early November elections, three more Republicans won major elections: Christine Todd Whitman ousted Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in New Jersey, Rudolph Giuliani sent David Dinkins packing in New York's mayoral contest, and George Allen beat out Mary Sue Terry for the open governor's seat in Virginia.

Six major elections held in the United States since Bill Clinton became president have gone to Republicans. A few Democrats won important mayoral races on Nov. 2 - Dennis Archer in Detriot, Thomas Murphy in Pittsburgh, Sharon Sayles Belton in Minneapolis, and Thomas Menino in Boston. And the GOP suffered one significant mishap Dec. 8 when Ms. Hutchinson was indicted a second time on election fraud charges almost identical to those dismissed six weeks ago. But Republicans remain sanguine. Instead of speculating about forthcoming gains in the House and Senate in 1994, they are beginning to predict them.

Of course, these are the same folks who thought Mr. Bush invincible in the fall of 1991 after a summer of parades celebrating the president's triumph in the Persian Gulf war. Republican pundits would be well advised to consult their history books before putting too much of their credibility on the line in predicting a resurgence for the GOP in 1994.

First, consider the House of Representatives. The average loss in the House for the president's party during midterm congressional elections is historically very high, but not high enough for even the most devoted GOP enthusiasts to contemplate a Republican majority come January 1995. From 1862-1990 the average midterm loss in the House for the president's party was 34 seats. If the 1994 election followed this pattern it could mean a 21-seat to 34-seat gain for the GOP. The best scenario would still leave Republicans 35 seats shy of a majority in the House.

The loss of seats for the president's party in the House typically followed a boost in House seats for members of the president's party. In times past, presidents brought members of the same party into Congress with them during the general election, hence the idea of ``presidential coattails.'' For example, Democrats picked up 75 House seats with Truman's victory in 1948, and Republicans picked up 34 seats with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

Midterm congressional elections then took back from the president's party some part of what was gained in the general election (and on occasion even more than that). Republicans won 47 new seats in the House in President Lyndon Johnson's midterm election in 1966, and 49 new Democrats entered the House following the Watergate debacle in the election of 1974.

However, in the current era of candidate-centered politics, a president's coattails do not hold much influence in congressional elections. In fact, neither of the last two presidents had any coattails at all. The GOP actually lost three House seats when Bush was elected president in 1988, and the Democrats lost 10 House seats when Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992. It was therefore no surprise that in the 1990 midterm elections, GOP losses in the House were rather small at only eight seats, well below the historical averages.

Since Bush didn't bring any new Republicans into Congress with him in 1988, the GOP had fewer seats to lose in 1990. Clinton faces the same situation in 1994. Having lost 10 House seats in 1992, the Democrats are not likely to lose anything near the number of seats predicted historically by the average loses during midterm elections.

As a general rule, the lower the number of House seats gained in the general election by members of the president's party, the lower the losses in the following midterm election. Thus, the best hope for the GOP to make a resurgence in the House is not the 1994 midterm elections, but the general election in 1996.

The situation is worse for Republicans in the Senate. Average losses for the president's party in midterm senatorial elections from 1862-1990 were 2.5 seats, from 1950-1990, three seats, and from 1962-1990, a little less than an average of two lost seats. With 34 senators up for reelection in 1994, 21 of whom are Democrats, the Republicans are calling this ``an historic opportunity to ... recapture a Senate majority.''

But the Republicans would need to win eight new seats (and hold the other up for reelection) to ``recapture a Senate majority.'' This is more than two-and-a-half times the highest average number of seats a president's party has lost in a midterm election. A turnover of this magnitude is possible, but it has only happened three times since 1946, when Republicans won 13 seats in the Senate; again in 1958, when Democrats won 15 seats; and once more in 1986 when Democrats recaptured the Senate from Reagan Republicans with eight new seats.

Such an outcome today is possible but not likely, especially since recent presidents have had very short coattails in senatorial elections. Bush gained only one seat in the Senate for the GOP in 1988, but lost only one in 1990. Clinton gained no seats in the Senate for Democrats in 1992 and has lost two in special elections since becoming president. The chances for a Republican majority in the Senate come 1995 are remote at best.

Electoral history won't stop GOP pundits and loyalists from hoping for a huge victory for the party in 1994. But in neither chamber will they make much headway against Democratic control of both the House and Senate; at least not without an electoral miracle of historic proportions. Don't count on it. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.