In Political Waves, Tide Doesn’t Rise to Same Level in Every State

by Stuart Rothenberg July 6, 2006 · 12:01 AM EDT

The last major national political wave, in 1994, didn’t sweep over all areas of the country with equal force. In some states, Congressional Democrats suffered minimal losses, while in others Democratic House seats fell in bunches.

For Democrats to take the House this year, they may need one or two states to deliver a significant number of wins, not just an isolated victory. Which states give Democrats the best chance to score victories in bunches?

The best examples of how the impact of the ’94 Republican wave differed from state to state are four states on three coasts: Washington, Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama.

In Washington, Democrats went into Election Day holding eight of the state’s nine House seats. Jennifer Dunn was the only Republican member of the House delegation (though Republican Slade Gorton held one of the state’s Senate seats).

On Nov. 9, Republican candidates emerged with seven of the nine districts, leaving only Democrats Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott standing. Five incumbent Democrats were defeated, and one open Democratic seat went to the GOP, a net gain of six seats.

In North Carolina, Republicans also made major gains, turning an 8-4 Democratic-majority delegation before the election into an 8-4 Republican majority after the votes were counted, for a net GOP gain of four seats.

Together, Washington and North Carolina combined to produce a 10-seat gain for the Republicans, almost one-fifth of the party’s 52-seat gain nationwide.

But just to the Tar Heel State’s north, in Virginia, the wave was little more than a ripple.

In the Old Dominion, Democrats headed into Election Day with a 7-4 majority in the commonwealth’s delegation. But unlike their neighbors in North Carolina, Virginia Republicans picked up only a single additional district. Democrats came out of the election still holding six of 11 Congressional districts.

And further into the Deep South, in conservative (and increasingly Republican) Alabama, Republicans failed to pick up even a single new House seat. Democrats went into the election holding four of the state’s seven districts, and they retained that margin and all of their seats after the election. Three white and one African-American Democrats were re-elected.

What states deserve special attention as possible candidates for a wave within a wave?

Democratic operatives have been suggesting that at least a handful of states are ripe for a Democratic wave: New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Indiana.

In Connecticut, where Republicans represent three of the state’s five Congressional districts, a wave conceivably could sweep Reps. Rob Simmons, Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson out. But a true partisan wave would inundate Republican lawmakers at all levels, and Republican Gov. Jodi Rell appears headed for a thundering victory.

In New York, Democrats are aggressively competing in at least four Upstate districts (against incumbent Reps. John Sweeney, Randy Kuhl and Jim Walsh, and in retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s open seat) and, possibly, in Rep. Sue Kelly’s Westchester to Poughkeepsie district just north of New York City.

Democratic strategists reason that party strength in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races should produce a big Democratic turnout that could also deliver a number of Congressional seats. That’s possible, but all of the districts being targeted by Democrats have a Republican bent, and easy victories by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and all-but-certain gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer could easily make voters bored rather than energized. The Democrats, in other words, are more likely to get shut out than sweep the seats.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Indiana appear to be better candidates for state-specific waves.

Republicans hold seven of Indiana’s nine Congressional districts, and Democrats have an excellent chance of seizing districts, specifically Rep. John Hostettler’s 8th district and Rep. Mike Sodrel’s 9th district. But they also have a longer-shot opportunity against Rep. Chris Chocola in the 2nd district, and a sweep of all three would give Democrats a majority of the House delegation.

Indiana holds some promise for Democrats because Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is having a tough time, and that increases the possibility that voters will send a collective message to the GOP.

Pennsylvania and Ohio seem to have the requisite voter anger and slate of competitive races that provide the ingredients for a wave election that could deliver a considerable number of seats to Democrats.

Incumbents struggled during Pennsylvania’s April primary, confirming voter dissatisfaction with a legislative pay raise, something that at the very least ought to raise Republican concerns. GOP House incumbents in the eastern third of the state, including Reps. Don Sherwood, Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach and Michael Fitzpatrick, are all at some risk, and Republican nominees for the Senate (incumbent Rick Santorum) and governor (neophyte Lynn Swann) are not currently doing well enough to help downballot Republican nominees.

Ohio, of course, is made-to-order for a local wave, given Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s horrendous poll numbers, state government scandals and credible Democratic challengers to Reps. Deborah Pryce, Bob Ney and Steve Chabot.

The point is that even national waves can be fickle. Not all states have a tsunami even if one appears nationally. Of course, Democrats don’t really care where they get their 15-seat gain as long as they get it. But it certainly would be easier for them to get to 218 seats with big gains in at least a couple of states.