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Will Republicans Party Like It's 1994? Or Democrats Like It's 1964?

4 years ago
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Now that the primary season has come to its shocking finale and the general election has begun, political observers may be wondering what year this is.

For Republicans, whose voting legions have surpassed Democrats in numbers and enthusiasm this year, 2010 is shaping up as a repeat of 1994. That was the year of the so-called Republican Revolution, when the party's Contract With America helped end 40 years of Democratic control of Congress.

For Democrats, who dismiss such analogies, the year to keep an eye on is 1982. That's when another new president, Ronald Reagan, entered his first midterm elections amid double-digit unemployment and abysmal approval ratings not unlike those facing President Obama. Republicans counted themselves lucky to "only" lose 26 House seats while managing to add one seat to their Senate majority.

But as Tea Party supporters wave their signature flag from the 18th century, there may be a more instructive year to consider.

"In 1964, a deeply principled, but extreme, candidate -- Barry Goldwater -- was chosen by the right wing of the Republican Party. By choosing principle over electoral expedience, the party lost badly, but in losing showed that Republicans cared deeply about certain core beliefs and would not compromise," said Duke University political scientist Michael Munger.

This November's election could also, he said, turn into 1994 when, "a set of principles were laid out in the Contract With America and the Republicans used this as a vehicle to ride to a majority in the House."

Munger notes that while 1964 was a presidential race and 1994 a midterm like 2010, "the point is that the Tea Party could either cause the Republicans to win big, if people unhappy with the Democrats want a return to conservative principles, or to lose big, if they are perceived as too extreme."

It is too early to tell if Republican primary gains equal a Pyrrhic victory. Voters will learn in November if Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and the other tempest-tossing Tea Party favorites have the right stuff to be elected in a general election. But even before the last primary votes were counted, political prognosticators had revised the odds of a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress amid headlines blaring "GOP Nightmare."

"Significantly worse today than yesterday," declared analyst Stuart Rothenberg on MSNBC. It was an observation shared by many, especially Democrats.

"The primary season created disarray for Republicans, who chose extremists instead of mainstream candidates to run for U.S. Senate," said Democratic Senate Committee spokeswoman Deirdre Murphy. "The election map has demonstrably changed."

If Democrats were gleeful at the Tea Party toppling of Delaware moderate Mike Castle, the eighth establishment Republican candidate to go down in this year's throw-the-bums-out melee, at least one GOP leader warned his party against self-confidence.

"Any of you who think this is locked doesn't get it," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the leader of the 1994 revolt, told the House Republican Conference. "The truth is [Democrats] will have a net resource advantage."

Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who has been a godfather to this year's rebels, was unrepentant about the prospect that his party may lose seats now that moderates like Castle have been sidelined.

"I don't want the majority back if we don't believe anything," he said on Fox News.

Many conservatives felt that way in 1964 when they backed Goldwater over moderate New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for president. Castle was one of the last of the "Rockefeller Republicans," whose moderate base in the Northeast has all but withered and died.

In accepting his party's nomination, the Arizona senator famously declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Goldwater promised to shrink government, expand freedom, repeal laws and make Social Security voluntary back when the Tea Party was still a chapter from colonial history.

He was crushed by President Lyndon Johnson in a landslide.

"Historical parallels are always chancy, but in a number of races bright-red Republicans with Tea Party backing could sacrifice victories for conservative principles. This could certainly hurt GOP chances for regaining control of Congress, especially in the Senate," said Robert Schmuhl, an American studies professor at the University of Notre Dame (and a Politics Daily contributor). He said that after Goldwater, it took until 1980 and Ronald Reagan's election "before the more conservative wing of the Republican Party prevailed and won nationally. How long might another GOP civil war last?"

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato sees fewer parallels to 1964 this year. He said Republicans have a good chance to win a House majority and more governorships and said it's "a great exaggeration to say a few races have changed the whole direction of 2010."

Instead, Sabato has another year in mind: 2012.

"Republicans do have a deep divide between the mainstream and the Tea Party," he said. "If the Republicans get the House, the leadership is going to have a bumpy ride holding the two sides together. And every White House candidate will have to appeal to the Tea base without going too far right for the mainstream GOP and the general electorate.

"If 1964 happens again, the number will read 2012, not 2010."
Filed Under: 2010 Elections, Campaigns

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