GOP's grim shutdown legacy: How the 1995 debacle turned states blue

Don't buy the spin that Republicans didn't pay for their previous shutdown. They're still feeling the effects today

Published October 3, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

Newt Gingrich, John Boehner                                        (AP/Doug Mills/J. Scott Applewhite/photo collage by Salon)
Newt Gingrich, John Boehner (AP/Doug Mills/J. Scott Applewhite/photo collage by Salon)

Gallup has corralled a bunch of polling data from 1995 and 1996 to test the familiar interpretation that Democrats “won” and Republicans “lost” the last government shutdown. The suggestion: It’s a myth – neither side received a measurable boost or paid a meaningful price in public opinion. The implication: Assumptions that today’s GOP is flirting with serious electoral fallout are rooted in a misreading of history and may be wildly off-base.

It’s hard to argue with numbers like these, but I’m going to try. Not because I disagree with the conclusion. My view is that Republicans will pay at best a limited price for the current shutdown in the 2014 midterms, and possibly no direct price at all. But the reason I think this is not because they skated in ’96; it’s because I believe they did pay a price that year, and have been paying it ever since. That the damage they suffered from what happened in the ‘90s was critical to reshaping American politics in a way that makes today’s Republican elected officials largely immune to electoral blowback for stunts like this.

Let’s start by remembering the context of 1995. The year began with both parties convinced a historic shift was playing out before their eyes. The 1994 midterms had been a shocking rout for the GOP, which picked up 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. No one had seen it coming. The Democratic Congress was supposed to be a permanent fact of life; it had been 40 years since Republicans had controlled the chamber.

It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which the ’94 GOP revolution shook the political class. Bill Clinton was immediately dismissed as a one-term president. The main question was whether he’d bow to the inevitable and decline to seek reelection, or if it would take a primary challenge to dislodge him. When we think of midterm tsunamis today, we probably think of 2010, when the political world reacted with relative calm and caution. But that was only because we all remembered how Clinton had recovered after ’94. But no such point of reference existed back in ’94, so it was assumed that the result signaled many more electoral disasters to come for the Democrats.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the ’94 result didn’t reflect a sudden, broad realization by Americans that they were political conservatives. It was more the result of the ideological sorting out of the parties and a correction for decades of virtually uninterrupted divided government. Basically, lots of conservative voters – particularly in the South – who had been splitting their tickets between Republican presidential candidates and Blue Dog-ish Democratic congressional candidates for years reacted with disgust and panic when Clinton took office. He was armed with large Democratic congressional majorities in 1993 and watching a Democratic president seek to push a liberal agenda through Congress was confirmation to them that the Democratic Party they’d once known really was gone for good. So when the ’94 midterms came around, they flocked to the GOP column, and they’ve been reliable straight-ticket Republican voters ever since.

But an electoral shift that significant can’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, it fueled another syncing up of ideology and party – and this one favored Democrats. Just as the events of ’93 and ’94 drove home to conservative voters that they no longer had any reason to vote Democratic, the emergence in ’95 and ’96 of a far-right, Southern-powered Republican congressional majority was a wake-up call to culturally liberal swing voters. These voters had previously been willing to cast ballots for Republicans but became far more reluctant to do so, not wanting to empower national leaders whom they regarded as cultural and ideological extremists. The impact of this shift was mainly felt in the Northeast and Pacific Coast and in parts of the Midwest.

The ’95 shutdown was not the only cause of this backlash, but it was the biggest single event of the 104thCongress, the one that dramatized more than any other what the Republican Party had become. And while the ’96 election didn’t produce a national Democratic landslide, the contours of Clinton’s reelection suggested a reshaping of the political terrain in certain areas of the country – a reshaping that has endured ever since.

For instance, Clinton had barely won New Jersey in 1992, besting George H.W. Bush by just 2 points. And prior to ’92, the Garden State had voted Republican for six straight presidential elections. But in ’96, Clinton’s margin in the state exploded to 18 points – more than double his national margin over Bob Dole. And since ’96, New Jersey has not been seriously contested in a presidential election; it’s now a safely blue state. New Hampshire had been a staunchly Republican state, one that Bush carried by nearly 30 points in 1988. Hit especially hard by the early ‘90s recession, it actually went for Clinton by a point in ’92 – only the second time since 1944 it had been won by a Democrat. But in ’96, Clinton’s margin swelled to 10 points, and the state has gone Republican just once (by 7,000 votes in 2000) since then.

The story is similar in other states, where Republicans won or were at least competitive through Reagan and Bush Sr. years – but not since the GOP revolution of 1994. Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois and Michigan – all once in play at the presidential, all written off as blue states today.

We can also look at the House playing field in ’96. Overall, Republicans suffered a net loss of only three seats. But look closer and you’ll see that 18 Republican House members were defeated for reelection that year, and the bulk of them were from the aforementioned states. The reason the GOP’s net loss was so low was because the party picked up a number of Democratic-held seats in red states – places where voters had been willing to split their tickets in the pre-Clinton years.

Again, the 1995 shutdown isn’t the only piece of this story, and the entire saga of the 104thCongress isn’t the only factor in the creation of these new blue states. But it’s impossible to ignore how sharply the political climates in these states changed virtually the minute Newt Gingrich and the GOP won control of the House.

Put all of this together – the syncing up of conservative voters with the GOP signified by the ’94 results and the backlash that the GOP Congress fueled – and you get the red state/blue state stalemate that emerged in the 2000 election. With a few changes, it’s the same basic red state/blue state divide we now have today. Demographic changes have today given the Democrats a small but real advantage at the presidential level, but overall the map is most notable for the near-total absence of real swing states.

This isn’t an accident. The events of the Clinton years gave the parties clearer ideological, cultural and demographic definition – and that definition has only been reinforced in the years since. Consequently, voters are far less likely to split their tickets now than they once were, which means that the vast majority of House members represent districts that voted for their party’s presidential candidate.

Which is all a long way of saying that even if Democrats “win” this shutdown, it may not be worth much for them politically.

The way American politics have sorted out, a Democratic House majority just isn’t a natural condition right now.  Sure, when a very specific set of conditions are in place a wave election could lift them to control of the House, as happened in 2006 and 2008. But that’s a temporary phenomenon. As we saw in 1994 and 2010, when a Democrat is in the White House, conservative-leaning districts will rally hard to the GOP, unwilling to give the left-of-center national Democratic Party complete control of Washington.

Factor in the evidence that – at least for now – it’s the GOP’s coalition that’s more likely to show up for any midterm election and we see why Republicans began the 2014 cycle with a chance to gain ground in the House.

It’s plausible that “losing” the shutdown will erode this potential for the GOP. Maybe instead of gaining, say, a dozen seats they’ll end up settling for one or two. In that sense, sure, there could be a real price for them to pay in 2014. There could also be fallout for the party in Senate races, where the excesses of Tea Party-ism have already cost the GOP winnable races in 2010 and 2012 and could do so again next year. And when it comes to presidential politics, the shutdown figures only to reinforce the factors that have put the GOP at a slight but real disadvantage in national elections.

But for the Republicans who are already on Capitol Hill and who are deciding what to do next? For almost all of them, the only real electoral risk they’ll run next year is being seen as insufficiently conservative in a primary. In other words, the damage that the Republicans of the ‘90s did to their party’s appeal has helped create an environment that insulates the Republicans who hold office today.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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