For Republicans, this off-year is getting very interesting. The party that lost the presidential election usually makes some gains two years later. So Republicans were expecting to pick up seats in the House of Representative just on the basis of the historical form sheet. But two recent special elections have the party's political leaders positively licking their chops.
Early this month, Oklahoma voters filled a congressional vacancy with a Republican state legislator, Frank D. Lucas, who was running against Democrat Dan Webber Jr., a former aide to a U.S. senator. This district hasn't had a Republican representative in 20 years. Then last Tuesday in Kentucky, Republican Ron Lewis, an evangelical preacher and businessman, defeated former state Sen. Joseph W. Prather, a Democrat, to fill a vacancy in a district that has been safely Democratic for over a century.
In Oklahoma, the winner stressed his conservatism and his opponent's ties to Washington. In Kentucky, the winner stressed his conservatism and linked his opponent to the national Democratic Party. His best commercial went, "If you like President Clinton, you'll love Joe Prather."
These straws in the winds are deeply disturbing to Democratic incumbents, especially those in the even more conservative, more anti-Clinton districts south of the Border States. Some Democratic leaders in the 11 states of the old Confederacy are so pessimistic about 1994 that they agree with Republican leaders who say the South might, for the first time, elect as many Republican representatives as Democrats. There are presently 77 Democrats and 48 Republicans. A gain of 15 seats would do the trick. A recent journalistic survey of just the eight Southeastern states concluded that Democrats could lose 14 districts.
Even with no Republican gains in the Southwest and the rest of the nation (which is unlikely), a shift of just 14 seats in the House would probably give effective control of legislation to a conservative bloc in the House of Representatives uniting behind the likes of Newt Gingrich.
But can Republicans also make substantial gains in the Senate? Probably. Democrats have 21 seats up this year (and one the next), compared to only 13 for the Republicans. The unexpected retirements of George Mitchell and David Boren, two Democratic shoo-ins for re-election, give Republicans a good chance in Maine and Oklahoma. And Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama is mulling over changing his party registration.
If most of the above Republican wish list happens, President Clinton's legislative agenda will almost surely be dead for 1995-1996, and his own re-election chances threatened. For health care and other priorities, it may well be now or never.