Can GOP Take House and Senate?

A newly elected Democratic president sweeps into Washington with a mandate and approval ratings to die for. The opposing party is written off as a goner. But slowly, over the president's first year in office, the sheen wears away and voters cool on his agenda, setting up a political comeback for the party out of power.

No, this isn't Barack Obama's Washington, but rather 1993, a year that has increasingly become a guiding light for many Republicans as they plot their return to the majority after consecutive elections in which the party suffered major losses, first control of Congress and then the White House. Tuesday's election results—including Bob McDonnell's double-digit victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia's gubernatorial race and Christopher Christie's win over incumbent democratic Gov. Jon Corzine—is being interpreted by many in the party as a sign the tide may finally be turning for Republicans, not unlike it did ahead of the party's historic 1994 landslide, in which they took control of Congress after more than 40 years in the minority. It's a historical comparison that has come up again and again as Republicans have become increasingly confident about their chances ahead of next year's 2010 midterm elections—especially in the House. "In terms of candidate recruitment, fund-raising and issue development, we are far ahead of where we were at this point in 1993—and you remember what happened in 1994," Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas lawmaker who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, recently wrote in a fundraising message to supporters.

With a year to go before Election Day 2010, Democrats and Republicans admit the political landscape looks more favorable for the GOP than it did just six months ago, with both sides conceding the GOP will likely pick up seats. After all, history is on their side: over the past 50 years, the party out of power in the White House has picked up seats in 10 of the last 12 midterm elections. That rule especially applies to the first midterm of a president's first term in office, when the election is generally viewed as a referendum on the party in power. But are Republicans really on the verge of a '94-type political tsunami?

Veteran election watchers, including Charlie Cook, have predicted in recent months that House Democrats could lose at least 20 seats next year—a decent number, though not enough to give the Republicans the 40 seats they need to retake majority control. Still, for Republicans, it's all about focusing on the positive. "It's going to be tough, but we think we can get within striking distance," a NRCC official, who declined to be named when discussing internal party strategy, told NEWSWEEK.

Polls confirm that the Republican brand, at least, is slowly making gains. According the most recent Gallup survey, the two parties are neck and neck in a generic ballot ahead of next year's campaign: 46 percent of likely registered voters said they would choose a Democratic candidate, while 44 percent said they'd vote GOP—a five point gain for Republicans since January. The biggest news for the GOP: self-described independent voters, a swing voting bloc that was crucial to Obama's win in 2008, increasingly say they will vote Republican in 2010. According to Gallup, Republicans lead Democrats among independents 45 percent to 36 percent—numbers that were precisely the opposite a year ago. As many Republicans like to note, this poll isn't much different than one taken back in the fall of 1993, ahead of the GOP comeback.

Yet, here's where the 1994 analogy gets tricky: Republicans enter 2010 with a lot more political baggage than they did 16 years ago. Back in 1993, voters focused much of their anger at Democrats, holding Republicans in much higher esteem. That's not the case today. Recent polls show the disapproval rating for congressional Republicans on average exceeds 60 percent—the party's worst numbers in more than a decade. Democrats in Congress aren't in much better shape, but their numbers are slightly better—a recent Pew Research poll found their disapproval rating at 53 percent. "The Republican brand is at an all-time low," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat in charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said last week. But GOP pollster Glen Bolger counters that Republicans are in a better position to save face with voters than Democrats are. "It's a lot easier for the GOP to fix our fading problems than it is for the Dems to fix their growing problems," Bolger says.

Still, the GOP has been plagued by its struggle to find a national leader and messy infighting over the path forward—a problem that even Rush Limbaugh complained about in an interview with Fox News last Sunday. "Right now there's no central Republican leader to turn to, and there's no central Republican message," the conservative radio host said. "The Republican message is sort of muddied. What do they stand for? Right now it's opposition to Obama."

Not unlike 1994, GOP officials have struggled with the question over whether to simply run as the "party of no" or whether they need a united message along the lines of the Contract for America, a platform Republicans unveiled in the final weeks of the '94 campaign. Heading into 2010, both House and Senate Republican candidates have been encouraged by party strategists to stay away from divisive social issues and focus on things they feel will haunt Democrats in 2010: the bad economy and what they describe as out-of-control federal spending. But there is an internal party divide over how far the party should go to win.

Case in point: the kerfuffle over New York's 23rd congressional district seat. In the race, two potential 2012 presidential hopefuls, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, endorsed Doug Hoffmann, a third-party conservative, over the GOP candidate, moderate Dede Scozzafava, who subsequently dropped out and endorsed the Democrat in the race, Bill Owens. Republicans quickly tried to do damage control, arguing that Scozzafava's nomination hadn't been open enough (she was chosen by GOP county chairman instead of through an open primary) and that she had been a flawed candidate. But a House GOP strategist acknowledged the "bad optics" of the situation, admitting it could throw a wrench into the party's efforts to run more moderate candidates in the Northeast and Midwest, where they are looking to win back seats it lost in '06 and '08.

The biggest problem for the GOP's 1994 dreams: the Democrats are ready this time. "This will not be another 1994," Van Hollen says. Back then, the GOP wave came as a surprise to the Democrats. But heading into 2010, the committees charged with re-electing House and Senate Democrats are quickly assembling the money and the manpower to fight back. In the House, the DCCC has raised nearly $44 million this year, compared to the NRCC's $27 million. In the Senate, the money chase is much closer: Democrats have raised $33 million, compared to the GOP's $30 million. And Democrats, particularly in the House, have kept their flank together, keeping retirements to an all-time low—offering the GOP fewer opportunities to make pick-up open seats, something that contributed to their '94 wave.

Republicans have also had mixed results on the recruiting front. In the House, many of the challengers they have signed up—including former Rep. Steve Chabot, who is running for his old seat in Ohio's 1st congressional district—are well-known names with experienced fundraising and campaign operations. But, at the same time, they have struggled to field candidates against obviously vulnerable Democrats, including freshman Rep. Alan Grayson, whose out-of-control rhetoric (he described as the GOP's health-care plan as "die quickly" and called a female aide to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a "K Street whore") has been frowned upon by fellow Dems.

In the Senate, Republicans repeatedly tried and failed to recruit a top-tier candidate to field against Harry Reid, whose poll numbers have tanked in Nevada. One of their top potential candidates, former Rep. Jon Porter, turned them down, leaving a field of largely untested candidates. Still, political analysts acknowledge the GOP's prospects in the Senate look much better than earlier this year, in part because they have recruited good candidates in Illinois and Connecticut—two areas once considered heavily Democratic territory. "Nine months ago (the Senate) looked like a lost cause for Republicans," Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, tells NEWSWEEK. Still, Rothenberg's not willing to call it a '94 year—at least not yet. "It's a real stretch," he says.