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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 elected officials.

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 S. Dukakis.

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 minority.

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 majority."

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 1997.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 24, 1998

Support for Iran Sanctions Bill Still Runs Strong in Senate
Rebels of '94 and 'Watergate Babies' Similar In Class Size, Sense of Zeal
For Democratic Freshmen, a Tough Start
Firebrand GOP Class Of '94 Warms To Life On The Inside
Heavy Workload Exacted A Toll
Politically Charged Task Faces Gambling Panel
Rostenkowski Hopes To Set Forth On the Road to Redemption
Ready Opposition to Tax Overhaul Means No Chance for Quick Fix
Winners, Losers And Big Problems With Either Tax Overhaul Plan

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