Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s an entire region -- the South -- moved decisively from the Democratic to the Republican column. Something similar happened in the inter-Mountain West and in border state parts of the Midwest. But the full impact of the transformation was hidden by incumbency and the stretch of Republican presidential rule from 1980 to 1992. As long Southern Democrats tended constituencies and could selectively hedge positions and pivot off Republican presidents, most could hold on. But that made this leg of the Democratic majority extremely brittle. Already, many of these districts would seldom if ever elect a Democrat in an open race. One good strike under unfavorable circumstances would bring the whole thing down.
The big game changer -- paradoxically, because he was a Southern Democrat -- was Bill Clinton. For years after 1994, Democrats blamed Bill Clinton for losing them their majority. But this was mainly BS and denial. Clinton did plenty wrong in his first two years in office. But the truth is that the pre-94 Democratic congressional majority was never going to survive another Democratic presidency. A Democrat in the White House, pursuing any substantial part of the agenda of the party who put him there, would deprive those members of Congress from the Greater South (South and overlapping border state areas) and West of that ability to balance and hedge. And so it did.
This is what 1994 was all about. And even today a lot of people for some reason resist seeing it.
Many of these folks realized this and retired in advance of the 1994 election. Age and a strong Republican redistricting effort in 1990-92 led to even more retirements. Looking back in retrospect, what's surprising about 1994 is not the result. It is the fact that very, very few people saw it coming, even in the final days before the election.
As you can see, if my theory is right, 2010 is fundamentally different. The key problem for Dems isn't unpopularity. It's a highly apathetic Democratic electorate facing an extremely energized Tea Party GOP.
Still, there is one parallel. Just as in 1994 you had dozens of Democratic seats that couldn't withstand real partisan contention, the huge victories in 2006 and 2008 have created a situation where not a few members of the Democratic House Caucus are sitting in what are essentially Republican districts. Perhaps not overwhelmingly so -- but enough that they'll be hard to hold in a tough year for Democrats. Think of Tom Perriello in Virginia's 5th Congressional district. It was close to miraculous that Periello won in 2008. And that fact that the local GOP seems to be declining to field some sort of Tea Party freak against him will make it harder. (Just so we're clear: I'm not saying Periello can't be reelected. I'm saying it's going to be a really tough campaign. and it illustrates the nature of some of the Dems challenges next year.)
My own take at the moment is that the Dems are in for a really tough election but that Republicans are also indulging in a lot of wishful thinking. Two factors -- whether Health Care passes and whether there's significant improvement in the economy by next summer -- will decide things, not any amount of strategery and messaging.