This Time, Voters Take Out Anger on Both Parties
By CHUCK RAASCH
Gannett National Writer
WASHINGTON - The politics of May should eliminate any comparisons to 1994 and the Republican revolution.
The 2010 voter angst and anger is deeper, more disperse, and more transparent than what led to the GOP's taking control of Congress in 1994 in one of the nation's biggest "wave" elections. Unlike 1994, there have already been ample warnings that this year will be perilous to any incumbent.
The newest political force, the tea party movement, is a wild card that was not around in 1994. This anti-tax, anti-government tea movement has already shown in Senate nomination fights in Utah, Florida and Kentucky that it is just as willing to take out Republicans as Democrats.
In the analogy of war, '94 was a one-sided assault; 2010 is scorched earth. Democrats still stand to lose the most because they have more to defend, but Republicans are not the relative blank slate they were 16 years ago, when most voters could not remember what it was like to have a GOP-controlled Congress. Now they do, and until Republicans clearly lay out a path different from the one they took when they controlled Congress, the Republicans have a tough economic record to defend.
Nowhere was the difference between this year and '94 more vivid than in a special election to replace the late Jack Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, an economically troubled, blue-collar, coal-and-steel bastion in the state's southwestern corner.
Republicans saw an opportunity to take this seat, but they failed when Democrat Mark Critz, a pro-gun rights, anti-abortion Democrat and former Murtha aide, won a special election on Tuesday. John McCain narrowly won this district in the 2008 election, and if persistent unemployment and economic worries under President Barack Obama are going to be a dead weight for Democrats in 2010, they should have been here.
But Critz won by 9 percentage points, forcing national Republicans to reassess the strategy of nationalizing local elections around Obama and his policies. Democrats crowed that the big wave that Republicans predicted would lead to their takeover of Congress in November may be nothing more than a ripple.
"After Pennsylvania 12, it is clear that the Republican hype about taking back the House hit a brick wall," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. , the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He said Critz won by focusing on economic growth and jobs stimulation, while his opponent, Tim Burns, offered a reprise of Republican policies that had gotten the country in economic trouble in the first place.
There will be a rematch between Critz and Burns in the general election in November, and Van Hollen cautions that Democrats still face a tough challenge there and across the map. But Tuesday's special election touched on at least three significant differences between this year and 1994, when Republicans stunned prognosticators by taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
- First, there have been ample warnings for Democrats that this will be a tough year. The Massachusetts Senate race in January, in which Republican Scott Brown won a seat held by the late Democrat Ted Kennedy for almost 50 years, served warning that no Democrat should assume he or she is safe in 2010. Van Hollen has been preaching that since the day after the 2008 elections.
- The Republican brand is fundamentally different than it was in '94, when polls showed that Americans thought they were far more able than Democrats to address the country's problems.
This year, Democrats in Congress are held in low esteem by voters, but Republicans are in even worse shape. A Fox News poll this month showed that Democrats in Congress have an approval rating of 37 percent, compared to 31 percent for Republicans.
- National GOP leaders and officeholders are viewed differently inside the Republican coalition than they were in '94. Then, there was uncommon solidarity between then-Chairman Haley Barbour and the young Republican leaders in Congress, led by Newt Gingrich. But GOP Chair Michael Steele has had a rocky reign, capped recently by criticism that his Republican National Committee wasted money and turned off some donors.
More fundamentally, one of the reasons the anti-tax, anti-big government tea party movement exists is disgust over Republican spending when they were in power. As the respective defection and defeat of moderate Republicans Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah shows, these tea party forces are as willing to purge GOP officeholders as they are ready to take on Democrats.
Rand Paul's decisive win in the Kentucky primary on Tuesday was a repudiation of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McGonnell, who had backed Paul's opponent.