History Suggests Control of the Senate is in Play

Poll numbers suggest that the Senate is getting closer to being in play, but for the moment few are predicting a turnover of control to Republicans.

Poll numbers suggest that the Senate is getting closer to being in play, but for the moment few are predicting a turnover of control to Republicans. Handicapper Charlie Cook’s venerated Cook Political Report predicts a 7-to-9-seat-gain, just short of the 10-seat gain needed for a Republican majority. Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, puts GOP pickups at 8 or 9 seats. The highly regarded Stuart Rothenberg estimates Republican gains in the Senate at a more conservative 5 to 8 seats.

Some may see these predictions as conservative, others as speculative, and a very unique few see them as wishful thinking. All of the above predictions are based on polling data, so their veracity is difficult to contend with. Another metric that some have used to measure the strength of the 2010 “wave election” is historic precedent, and there are reliable patterns in history that can help gauge the coming wave. Since 1945, the House has changed hands four times – all were in wave elections, and the Senate always followed.


Conventional wisdom holds that immediately after the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri, the American economy roared to life. Factories that had been producing tanks and B-17s switched right over to cars and washing machines, and Levittowns spontaneously sprouted up like wild asparagus. Actually, the economy remained depressed for some time after the war. Many American soldiers came home to find that there was no work, and wartime jobs were being phased out without replacement.

In November, 1945, Autoworkers struck en mass. In February, 1946, steelworkers did the same and railroad union workers would follow in May. The Congress, in a rare bipartisan effort, voted to break the railroad workers strike. As wages stalled and price controls began to take a toll on the inflation rate, political pressure began to mount on the Congress to ease the burden on the consumer. In the summer of 1946, the Democratic Congress presented President Truman with a bill that would continue wartime price controls. Truman vetoed the bill knowing that prices would skyrocket but he would save the nation the inflationary pressure that would come from peacetime price fixing. The result was massive discontent. By October, Truman’s job approval was at 32 percent.

That November, the public swept the Democrats out of both houses of congress. Republicans gained 55 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate to gain their first majority since 1933.


President Truman campaigned for reelection against what he called the “do nothing” 80th Congress. In fact, Republicans were able to get quite a few things done; they just ended up being unpopular. As a response to the organized labor unrest of 1946, Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass the Taft-Hartly Act in 1947. The bill prevented labor unions from organizing and striking as they had in the immediate post-war years. President Truman campaigned against the law, which he had vetoed but was overridden. Despite the threats to Democratic unity coming from Midwestern Progressives and Southern Dixicrats, who ran a shadow presidential campaign that year, Truman was returned amid speculation (and premature headlines) that he would be easily defeated.

The Republican majority was short-lived. Democrats were awarded 75 House seats and 9 Senate seats in this historic wave election.

Interim Years:

In the interim years between House takeovers, the Senate would change hands several times, each time amid a wave election. In 1952, the Senate was awarded to Republicans as the electorate went to the polls to vote for General Eisenhower for president. The Republicans gained a weak majority for a single congress. They lost that majority again in the non-wave midterm election of 1954.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan led a Republican wave that captured the Senate for Republicans again from 1981 to 1987. President Reagan had an average Gallup approval rating of 60 percent between January 1986 and January 1987 (Iran-Contra sapped much of the President’s high approval that year, but the story broke after the midterms had passed). Despite the President’s high average approval, voters opted to check Reagan’s agenda by delivering 55 House seats and 8 Senate seats to the Democrats.


The 1994 model has been scrutinized recently for any sign of similarities to 2010. President Bill Clinton’s push for massive healthcare reforms and the 1993 tax hikes were blamed for a national discontent that led to what posterity called “The Republican Revolution.” However, the events of 1994 were foreshadowed by off-year elections around the country. The mayoralties of New York City and Los Angeles and Jersey City, all heavily Democratic cities, went to Republicans. In New Jersey, Gov. Jim Florio lost his bid for reelection to the Republican candidate Christine Todd Whitman. Similarly, Gov. Jim Webb of Virginia lost the Governor’s race to Republican George Allen. Republicans also won a special Senate election in Texas and two special House races in May of that year.

Republicans won 52 House seats in the general election and 8 Senate seats in 1994. Republicans would maintain control of the House from 1995 to 2007, the longest period of GOP control in post-war history.


The Senate briefly switched control from Republicans to Democrats in 2001 when Democratic Sen. Jim Jeffords declared himself an Independent and caucused with the Democrats. Republicans regained the Senate in 2003 following the 2002 midterm elections, which were heavily impacted by the events of 9/11. However, by 2006, the goodwill that President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress generated following those attacks was spent. Democratic candidates campaigned against the Iraq War during the bloodiest phase of the insurgency. They were also effective at mobilizing fears that a recession loomed and the level of impoverished or uninsured were growing, despite the 4.5 percent unemployment rate. Congressional Democratic candidates charged that high-paying, regionally diverse jobs were being lost to overseas competitors and, while unemployment was low, the jobs that made up the employment figures were low-paying, unfulfilling occupations. Furthermore, the government’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 solidified the impression of an anemic Washington D.C.

Democrats took 51 seats plus 2 independent Democrats in the House and 6 Senate seats to give Democrats a narrow majority in both chaimbers. The historic presidential election of 2008 solidified the Democrat’s majorities.



Republicans seem to enjoy the best of both the 1994 and 2006 wave factors. The economic woes that were so effective at provoking anxiety in voters in 2006 look like the most optimistic of growth projections today (only 51,000 new jobs added, 4.3 million service sector jobs paying 34 cents lower than the national average). Clinton’s overreach in 1993 – 1994 pales in comparison to how health care reform, stimulus I and cap-and-trade were passed – or almost passed.

Some other indicators work in the GOP’s favor. The measurable enthusiasm gap between Republican voters and Democrats means that House districts, gerrymandered to include as many members of a single voting block as possible, may limit the number of seats gained in the House, but the increased voter turnout will undoubtedly effect the statewide Senate races.

Since 1945, every wave election that delivered the House to the opposition party has also delivered the Senate. While most political handicappers are hedging their bets and few are predicting an outright GOP takeover of the Senate, history suggests that it would not be surprising.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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