The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee had a stiff primary challenge, and looked vulnerable for perhaps the first time in his long career. A wave of scandals had dogged his party in the previous year, and rumor had it that the feds would be indicting him for corruption. If only he could win his primary race, the conventional wisdom said he would be re-elected without a problem in his heavily partisan district.
The year was 1994 and the Chairman was Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.
We all know what happened: Rosty won his primary, and then got hit with 17 federal indictments that would later result in a guilty plea and a lengthy prison stay. The Republican nominee, little-known long shot Michael Patrick Flanagan, beat Rosty in the general election and joined history as one of the members of Republican Revolution of 1994.
I worked for Flanagan’s D.C. office for a short time; my friends on the Democratic side of the aisle joked that it was a “temp job.” Sadly, they were right. Flanagan was a solid guy, one of the smarter members of his class and a straight shooter, but he was unfortunately a stranger in a strange land – a Republican on Democratic Machine turf. The Machine took a bead on him in 1996, and took him out at the ballot box. Flanagan now works as a lobbyist, while the man who beat him now serves as the scandal-plagued Governor of Illinois. The seat is currently occupied by DCCC Chairman and former Clinton advisor Rahm Emmanuel.
Ten years after Flanagan’s loss, the Democrats seem poised to make substantial gains in the House and Senate. On the House side, they stand to gain anywhere between 10 and 20 seats. The question s not whether they will advance, only whether it will be enough to take control of the chamber.
If the Democrats do take a large number of Republican seats this cycle, they will find themselves on the defensive in 2008, because the Democrat gains this year are washing in on a wave of Flanagans: one-term winners who don’t fit the partisan bent of their districts, taking advantage of temporary weakness of individual incumbents.
Democrats hope to win Mark Foley’s old seat. Katherine Harris’s old seat. Bob Ney’s seat. Henry Hyde’s old seat, for cryin’ out loud. They want to knock off incumbents like Thelma Drake. Deborah Pryce. Chris Chocola. Jean Schmidt. Mike Sodrel. They’ll probably take at least a few of these, if not more.
Many of these districts are places that 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry underperformed his own national average by more than 9% of the vote – in other words, these are places that are exceedingly unfriendly territory for Democrats. Almost all of them are places where Bush at least won, and many of them were firmly in Republican grip in the last Congressional election as well. (Otherwise, they couldn’t be Democratic gains this year.)
The Democrats will no doubt win a number of races this year in places they could not win in the last few decades and might never win but for some serious incumbent missteps. What does this mean for Democrats measuring the drapes for their new leadership offices? Keep your receipts.