In a way they haven’t been in at least three decades, Democrats are ascendant in Washington and in state capitols across the country.
For two consecutive elections, the party has claimed dozens of new House and Senate seats, building muscular majorities in both chambers—this after being locked out of power in both for virtually the entire period between 1994 and 2006. In ’06, not a single incumbent Democratic senator, congressman or governor was defeated for reelection, and almost none were last month, either. Similar dominance has been evident in recent local and state legislative elections in numerous states, including some with Republican bents.
All of which might make this statement seem ridiculous: If you’re an ambitious Democrat in a politically competitive state or district, you might want to think twice before making your move in 2010. And, conversely, if you’re an ambitious Republican in a competitive state or district, it might actually be a good time to take a leap.
For good reason, election analysts expend considerable time and effort dissecting factors like the fund-raising skills of candidates, their personal appeal and name recognition, and their communication abilities. All play significant roles in determining the outcome of any race.
But, at least in jurisdictions not dominated by one party, the single most important factor—capable of canceling out all of the advantages enjoyed by a candidate who is clearly superior in above-mentioned departments—is the national political climate. When the winds are gusting in the Democrats’ favor, as they were in ’08 and ’06, there’s not much that a Republican—especially a non-incumbent Republican—can do to win in a competitive state or district. Likewise, when the national climate strongly favors the G.O.P., like in 1994, Democrats (again, particularly non-incumbents) aren’t going to be winning many—if any—competitive races.
Granted, the national environment doesn’t always devastate one party as it did in ’94, ’06 and ’08. But it almost always favors one party over the other, with the bulk of tight races breaking that party’s way in the closing weeks of a campaign. In 2004 and 2002, Republicans benefited, picking up or holding onto a collection of Senate and House seats that they would have lost in a more Democrat-friendly year. In 2000 and 1998, the tide was with the Democrats, who won races that would have broken against them in 2002- or 2004-like climate.
The same principle can be applied to gubernatorial races, although it’s a less exact science. Because state issues, personalities and dynamics can differ so dramatically from those on the national level, it’s common for voters to support one party in federal races and the other at the state level.
But the national climate can’t be ignored. It’s not a coincidence, for instance, that the G.O.P. won governorships in Democratic states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and Hawaii on the same day in 2002. Local factors made all of those races competitive, but the pro-G.O.P. mood that prevailed at the national level clearly trickled down as well, helping to push the Republican candidate over the top in each one.
It’s a humbling reality that some politicians never quite appreciate: You can make all of the speeches and raise all of the money you want, but your success as a candidate often hinges on whether you have the right party label in the right year.
The consequences of getting this basic calculation wrong can be devastating for ambitious politicians. A good example can be found in Dave McCurdy, a young, moderate congressman from Oklahoma who first won his seat in 1980, at the age of 30. He was smart, savvy and eager to go places. When he spoke at the 1992 Democratic convention, signs reading “McCurdy for President 2000” were visible in the crowd.
Tired of waiting in the House, he decided to make his move in 1994, when Democrat David Boren unexpectedly quit the Senate to become the president of the University of Oklahoma. His opponent was a right-wing firebrand named James Inhofe. In another year, this would have been a perfectly winnable race for McCurdy, who had spent 14 years meticulously distancing himself from his national party’s liberal orthodoxy—a perfect opportunity to make a national name for himself by winning a statewide race in a G.O.P.-friendly state (but one where Democrats had had their share of success).
But it was 1994, and Democrats, thanks to an early backlash against Bill Clinton and his Democratic allies in Congress, were in profound disfavor, particularly in Southern and border states. It didn’t matter what McCurdy said or did; he was part of Bill Clinton’s party. (Inhofe’s television ads simply used McCurdy’s ’92 convention speech, in which he enthusiastically sang Clinton’s praises.) It wasn’t even close. In victory, McCurdy would have been certified as a rising national star. Instead, his upward trajectory interrupted, he found himself locked out of office and tagged as a loser. Now 58, he’s a successful lobbyist, but his big political dreams died in 1994.
That brings us to 2010. On the surface, it looks like another promising year for Democrats, particularly in the Senate, where the G.O.P. will have more turf to defend—some of it in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Hampshire, where Democrats have had much success these past two elections. In a climate like 2008 or 2006—or even like 2000 or 1998—the stage would seem set for a strong Democratic year.
But by Election Day 2010, Democrats will have been running Washington for nearly two years. As economist Paul Krugman suggested in Monday’s New York Times, no matter what Barack Obama does in the coming months, dreadful economic news is likely for all of 2009, perhaps well into 2010. Americans have invested considerable hope in Obama—more than they have in most incoming presidents—but, amid perpetually gloomy news, this optimism will eventually give way.
Suddenly, those promising targets for Democrats might not look so inviting. At this point in 1992, a 1994 Senate race would have struck McCurdy as a god bet. Clinton was going to govern from the middle and Oklahoma was willing to back centrist Democrats. But by the fall of 1994, entering the race seemed like a tragic miscalculation for McCurdy.
Obviously, 1994 is an extreme example, given the bloodbath that Democrats suffered. But the lesson of Dave McCurdy, and of countless others like him, is clear: For a politician looking to move up, picking the right year is half the battle—at least. History says that 2010 should be a better year for Republicans than for Democrats. The question ambitious pols in both parties have to ask themselves is: How much better?