For Democratic Freshmen, a Tough Start
By Elana Mintz, CQ Staff Writer
In 1994, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman summed up the fate of the
lucky 13 freshmen who bucked the Republican tide and landed a seat in
Congress. "If you are a Democrat who won this year," he said, "there's
something pretty special about you."
Indeed, the Democratic victories that year were sparse, and as a group,
they were dwarfed by their new classmates: 73 Republicans touting their
political inexperience, rallying behind a conservative banner hoisted by
House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
The 13 Democrats were just the opposite. Many were from solidly
Democratic districts, some were unapologetically liberal, and all but one
were working their way up in political careers begun as local or state
Some Democrats weathered particularly difficult races. Of the baker's
dozen elected, two -- John Baldacci of Maine and Mike Ward of Kentucky --
won with less than 50 percent of the vote. (Ward later became the only 1994
freshman Democrat to fail to get re-elected when he ran in 1996, but
Baldacci garnered 72 percent of the vote in his second election.)
In addition to those two pluralities, six more freshmen squeaked into
office with 55 percent of the vote or less. At the other end of the scale
were two winners from largely black districts. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas
(73 percent) and Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania (86 percent) both won handily
and were later re-elected with similar scores.
Finally, four of the Democratic freshmen earned an unusual distinction
in an otherwise overwhelming GOP rout by managing to capture open seats
that had been held last by Republicans. Baldacci, Patrick J. Kennedy of
Rhode Island, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, and William P. "Bill" Luther of
Minnesota all took over GOP seats in a year when Democratic incumbents were
dropping like flies.
All 13 freshman Democrats came from districts that had voted for
President Clinton in 1992, and all but two of the districts (Ward's and
Baldacci's) voted for the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, Michael
While their GOP opponents prided themselves on being outsiders, some
Democrats highlighted their political experience and even their
connections. Kennedy, for example, did not shrink from pointing out during
his campaign that his family name and its stature in Washington could help
bring money to his district.
Once the 104th Congress was sworn in, Gingrich and the rest of the
House leadership gave the newest GOP members plum committee assignments and
ample room to make their voices heard. One outspoken conservative freshman,
Sam Brownback of Kansas, even managed to parlay his 1994 House win into a
successful Senate bid in a special election in 1996.
A Step Down in Stature
But Democrats, some of whom were influential political veterans on the
state level, had to assume low-profile roles in a new and demoralized House
Baldacci, who came to Congress after more than a decade in the Maine
Senate, says it was a rough adjustment. Senior Democrats were losing seats
on committees and "no one was paying attention to us."
Lynn Rivers, his classmate from Michigan, agrees that the start of the
104th Congress was a difficult time to be a Democrat. Her Republican
counterparts got endless media attention while Democratic freshmen were
"completely forgotten" and their party was "devastated by the loss of the
But things have turned around since then. Baldacci has recently found
it easier to reach out to his Republican colleagues, who have been more
willing to compromise, particularly on environmental and labor issues.
Rivers agrees that bipartisanship became easier when the "white-hot and
personal" rhetoric of 1995 spouted by both parties began to cool in
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.