What does being routed feel like? The Daily Beast talked with Paul Begala, Joe Scarborough, Mark Foley, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, and others about being in the eye of the 1994 storm.This is now, that was then, but the similarities to the wave election of 1994 are looking more like déjà vu all over again. It’s a different, more populous, more complicated country, but the issues and the problems are eerily equivalent.
There’s a Democratic president whose popularity is losing altitude, an energized group of enemies foaming and fomenting ideas of illegitimacy, a souring economy, and a federal deficit that is skyrocketing. Social issues like gays in the military are irritating the body politic, and the electorate is equally ill-tempered about a Democratic Congress that has voted time and again for policies that allegedly are going to raise taxes, increase the cost of energy, and do other unappealing things, real or imagined, that are spiking the collective blood pressure.
On that fateful Tuesday 16 years ago, angry voters tossed out 54 House Democrats, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and eight Democratic senators, and handed control to a political party, the Republicans, that hadn’t enjoyed a legislative majority for 40 years.
Of course, no two elections are exactly alike. “In 1994, the anger was really going after Democrats,” recalls Bill Clinton loyalist Terry McAuliffe, who was the party’s top fundraiser when the Democrats’ world came crashing down. “I think there was anger, but it was a political anger. That’s different from today’s anger, which is fuelled by frustration with the economy. People are very worried about their future, and economic anger is more potent than political anger.”
Former Republican congressman Mark Foley, who was swept into office in the wave of 1994, warns that, like everything else, the political lifecycle had gotten much shorter. “If the Republicans win, I think they will have a shorter honeymoon than for a Las Vegas wedding,” Foley says. “They will not be given a grace period. The demand of the elector is, ‘You better get stuff done quickly or you will lose my support.’ They will have to prove that they have a plan and then articulate a platform.”
Republican operative Dan Meyer, who was Newt Gingrich’s chief of staff when he ascended to the speakership, sees a poignant parallel between Tom Foley and the current reigning House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. “Tom Foley personally lost his seat that night, and I always felt that since the Democrats lost the House, that was probably a good thing. It’s not a pleasant experience for the current speaker to be hanging around once they lose the majority. There’s lots of speculation about Nancy Pelosi, but if she’s losing the majority and as sizeable a number of seats as people are now predicting, there’s no way she’ll stay.”
It remains to be seen whether this election will resonate as loudly as the earlier one. On the chance that it might, The Daily Beast talked to some of the key players of 1994—winners, losers, and denizens of the permanent campaign—and discovered an unforgettable moment in the American narrative.
The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Samuel P. Jacobs and Benjamin Sarlin interviewed political figures about the 1994 midterm elections, and Grove prepared their report. This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast and is republished here with permission.
We were at the White House for our big Election Night party. It was a very short evening. Instead of a victory party, it was like a funeral home. It wasn't good. It became clear pretty quick it was going to be a blowout.
At some point the president said, 'Come on, Mack, let's go upstairs.' So he and I went upstairs and the two of us went out to the Truman Balcony. And he called the White House operator and starting making phone calls, calling candidates around the country. I started drinking a Miller Lite and he had his Diet Coke and a cigar. It was a beautiful view looking out from the balcony, and we started talking about the election.
He was pretty despondent. And I did say, 'You know, Mr. President, there is a silver lining tonight. You know these guys are going to overreach. You know Gingrich is going to overreach. He's going to turn people off, and for the sake of your reelection you now have someone who is going to present a clear choice.' So we sat there for a couple of hours, and at some point I said goodnight and I went home. He was not in a great mood. He was very depressed.
It was the worst night of my professional life. I was involved with two campaigns: Georgia Governor Zell Miller, who won, and Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, who lost. I went up to Philadelphia because I wanted to be with Wofford since it was a closer race. The hardest walk of my life was walking down that hall and going into that room. I had to tell my dear friend, 'You have to place the phone call. Call Rick Santorum.' He was absolutely unfazed. It was like telling him they ran out of cheeseburgers and he was going to have to have chicken.
Then I stepped back and saw the enormity of it. I wound up on the phone with the president for a long, long time. This was before mobile phones were popular. I was on a payphone, sitting on the floor in some abandoned corner of the hotel. I called and commiserated with the president. For at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour, sitting on the floor, completely knocked down.
The interesting thing was President Clinton was already thinking about the next day. I was very emotional, upset, hated losing. President Clinton was very much in work mode. He had no time for denial. 'What do we do? What do you think?' He was trying to figure out what the next step was. The president isn't allowed to just collapse for a few days and drown his sorrows. The president is the president all the time, every day. 'What's next?' He began to see the strategy of his comeback on the very night of his biggest setback. No defeat is ever final if you have the stones to get back up.
It was ironic--on labour Day of 1994, I was up 30 points. It was a tsunami that I didn't see coming. But I knew on the Friday before the election I had a good chance of losing. At first I thought, 'How could these people do this to me? I've been such a good congressman. I've done so many good things.'
On Election Night, we were at my parents' house till about 9:30 p.m. Central Time. It became obvious that I was not going to win. We went down to the campaign headquarters, but I didn't concede yet. I started speaking around 10:05 to announce my concession. Quite frankly, it's not the kind of thing I ever thought I'd do, but I tried to stretch my speech so that my opponent would not make the 10 o'clock news. My son went into the bathroom and cried. He was about 25. I had been in politics since he was 7 years old. I never cried, though I did get choked up over the next few days.
A lot of it was anti-Clinton. There was extensive opposition to health care. The big issue was firearms. That is not a big issue today. The president's economic plan included an energy BTU tax, and NAFTA. One of the reasons that I lost was that my blue-collar base lost some of their devotion to me because of my votes on guns and votes on NAFTA. None of those issues exist today.
As Shakespeare said, It sucketh. I was the deciding the vote on President Clinton's budget. It raised taxes in my district. I painted a target on my chest. I wasn't a very good politician. I represented the most Republican district represented by a Democrat, and the House leadership came to me to vote for Clinton's budget. It was stunning to me. 'You guys can't find someone else? I will only be your last vote.' A really seasoned politician would tell them to walk it off and find somebody else. There were chairs of committees who didn't vote for it. And they came to me. Ex-squeeze me, Sponge Bob? It didn't make any sense to me. I couldn't believe it. The guys on the floor were talking about changing their votes. 'What do you mean, you could go either way?' I was really surprised. These Democrats, many of whom came in on the Clinton wave, didn't see this as a seminal vote. And I said, yeah, I came in with Bill Clinton. This is so important to his administration. I was actually convinced if it went down he would be a lame-duck president.
It wasn't even a toss-up to me--I thought I would lose. I knew that the message that the Republicans were able to deliver was much clearer and very much mirrors the message now: smaller government, fewer taxes. We knew it was going to be tough. I had seen what was being put up on television. I would have preferred to run the race against me. I looked at the numbers and called my opponent John Fox and congratulated him.
My children were all there. I was being followed around by television crews. I told them, 'Guys, this is a campaign. It's a race. It's OK. We'll get over this. There is life after this.' It was an election. It wasn't a sick child.
Ed Rollins, my campaign adviser, told me on Sunday in a phone call, 'George, it's narrowing and narrowing. I don't know if we are going to win this thing or not. It's just way too close to call.' I'm going to lose this one, I thought. I was nervous. On Election Night, I was in Spokane, Washington, with 6,000 other people at our headquarters. I was in a back room uncertain of the outcome. I couldn't go out and declare, didn't know if I was going to win for sure. At 1 a.m., I went out and said, 'If trends continue the way they look they are going, I'll win it in a very close contest.' I didn't know who had won that night, neither did Mr. Foley. I went home, slept for about an hour. I had an invitation to be on the Today show at three o'clock in the morning. At 11 the next day, Mr. Foley called me and said, 'I'm not going to contest the election.'
That day I was pretty dead. After it was announced that I had won, I went on Larry King. I was sitting in front of a television camera in Spokane and I fell asleep. I woke to 'Mr. Nethercutt, Mr. Nethercutt, are you there?' I shook the sleep out of my head and did the interview. I was thrilled by my own victory and also pleased that I would be serving in the majority. I felt terrible for Mr. Foley. He was very gracious when he called. I had a lot of people who came in from outside who were levelling some real criticism at Tom. I said he was wrong on this issue or that, but never said he was crooked or a bum. I couldn't control what others were saying.
I really didn't think we would win the majority. I don't think any of us did. It was kind of like the Friday before the big game on Saturday. You felt good. The coach was making you feel good, and you had reasons to be optimistic, but I thought I would be fortunate to have another guy named Foley who was Speaker of the House so I could order furniture on his name and have it delivered to my annex office.
Election Night I was at the Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach. It wasn't clear until 10 at night. I remember somebody came in and said, 'Foley's losing!' And I was, like, 'Who are we talking about?' The Speaker of the House! It was just unbelievable and my race became almost secondary to what was sweeping the country. Obviously we didn't have all of the Internet technology and all the sharing of information where you can check every poll up to the minute--none of that. We'd get calls from reporters just checking what we'd heard. But nobody had any firm grasp of what was happening. I woke up the next day with a sense of awe.
I was giddy with excitement. It was my first term in Congress, I had celebrated my 40th birthday during the primary and it had been 40 years since the Republicans had the majority. It was a big deal. But I had been reading about myself in the local papers, not reading about the national mood. It had been more personal, and now I thought, My God, this is transformational. Newt Gingrich is going to be Speaker. Tom DeLay--who the hell was Tom DeLay? I didn't really know--had called me after the primary, and he was going to be majority whip. Within 24 hours of the election, I got calls from Dick Armey, DeLay, Gingrich, offering congratulations and reminding me that they'd like to serve in some capacity or other, and looking for me to pledge my support. The internal politics were fast and furious. I think some of these new people, who hadn't been in politics, didn't appreciate any of the nuances of legislating and thought they were going to bully their way through the building and disregard 30-year lawmakers. They hadn't been in a deliberative body where compromise was an art form rather than a curse. Some of this started early on, and probably was somewhat of our undoing.
We were at the local hotel complex here in the Atlanta suburbs and I think at least two other members were there. Newt was at the same hotel. He had several aides there, and of course as then-minority whip they were following things all around the country. As the news came in, they had a much more substantive sense of what was going on because Newt had been working these races all across the country and had seen the polling that was not available publicly. I was busy running my race, so even when we went to Washington in September for the unveiling of the Contract With America I had no sense of how significant the change that was brewing really was. In the back of my mind, I sort of presumed even if I won that I'd be a member of the minority party.
As each one of the races came in from around the country, it became clear that there truly was a wave sweeping Republicans in and they'd have the majority. I don't know how to put it except it was phenomenally exciting. This was 40 years since we had last won the majority. It truly gave me a sense of being in the eye of a historic storm.
I got a very nice call from my opponent, Buddy Darden. It was early in the morning and he was following the same numbers we were. He was probably as tired as I was at that point, but he was a gentleman certainly. Before that we were friends and we are still friends now--he actually came to my wedding several years before.
I was at my HQ with my people and what I remember is the disbelief. We had a strong sense we were going to have tremendous gains in the House, but after 40 years I just didn't believe in my career in Congress that I would live to see Republicans win the majority. I just remember the astonishment of thinking we're in the majority and I'm potentially going to be a chairman or subcommittee chairman. Suddenly we were in the driver's seat and we were going to need to actually do something about the Contract With America and everything else we had talked about. I couldn't quite imagine it.
I'd actually worked around the clock and campaigned for a year and half, so unlike most other politicians I just stopped campaigning on Monday before the election. I just intuitively knew that people had made their minds up, so I spent Election Day driving across my district, which has some of the nicest beaches in America. It was my first day off in a year and half, driving across Pensacola and Destin and stopping by to talk to friends who couldn't figure out why I wasn't out shaking hands or waving at cars. I didn't have sex on the beach--not the drink and not the real thing. It was pretty boring.
I was nervous, but my teeth weren't chattering. I'd gone to a friend of mine's condo out on the beach, with about four of us from the campaign. As we got closer to the results I was a little antsy. I had outworked my opponent, and done everything I could, so the results started coming in at 7 o'clock. No Republican had ever won the district and nobody thought I could win. Before the primary, Newt Gingrich was quoted in Roll Call as saying I was too conservative to be elected. The only poll we had taken, the Thursday before the election, showed that I was ahead 51 to 49 per cent, so I knew it was going to be a long night.
And then, about 15 minutes after 7 pm, the first results starting coming in and we actually thought the television station, WEAR, the ABC affiliate, had made a mistake. They had me ahead 65 per cent to 35 per cent, and one of my staffers actually called the station to make sure they weren't wrong. Nope, those were the numbers. We were winning by 30 percentage points and it stayed like that all night. I knew I was going to Washington.
I'm not much of a fist-pumper. I don't really celebrate much in the moment, so I just got up and gave my speech and somebody shouted out that the Republicans had taken the House and the Senate. And I couldn't believe it. I didn't really have good intel from across the country. The Republican Party establishment in Washington and Tallahassee, and even Pensacola, were all working against me so aggressively that there wasn't a network that would have connected me with people running in other places. It wasn't till I got to Washington and compared notes with a 65-year-old guy from Washington state named Jack Metcalfe that I realised the significance of the election. Like me, he had just gone out and said what he felt like saying, and it turned out we had the same message. If a guy who started his first campaign at 29 years old from Northwest Florida was thinking, doing, and saying the same thing as a 65-year-old guy 3,500 miles away in Washington state, then something pretty remarkable was happening across the country.
I flew to Washington the next day. The NRA had actually sent out some really nasty direct-mail pieces against me and I remember running to a guy who was a lobbyist for the NRA. And he came up and started talking to me--I had won, so I could be gracious. I said, 'Listen, you're probably gonna agree with my votes on your issues 95 per cent of the time, but I'm not doing it for you guys. I can't believe how you conducted yourselves during the campaign.' And of course he did what a good lobbyist would do in that situation--which was, he apologized and said it was somebody else's idea.
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