Republicans are exuberant after a banner election where they surprisingly won the presidency, both houses of Congress, almost certainly guaranteed a majority on the Supreme Court and improved their standing in the state houses. But even with this outcome, Republicans may want to pay some attention to the ominous numbers in their results and to a few historic election reversals. As the past has repeatedly shown, the public is quite willing to turn on the party in power.
Midterm elections usually represent a bad result for the party holding the presidency – Obama's first midterm saw the Democrats lose the House and his second saw them lose the Senate. Due to the fact that the Democrats are the ones defending Senate seats – 25 of the 33 seats up are Democrats or their independent allies, the Republicans can feel the wind at their back.
The GOP may feel that they can defeat the historic trends. It has been done before – George W. Bush managed to have a great mid-term result in 2002 after also winning the White House while losing the popular vote. But it is against the historic norm. Most times, the party in power does poorly in the midterm.
But there are two particular midterm elections that should serve as flashing warning signs for any party coming off big victories —1894 and 1994. Both rank among the two most important midterm elections in American history and came two years after one party won a seemingly sweeping mandate for power. Both saw historic reversals. And, perhaps more importantly, both completely reshaped the political landscape for decades to come.
In 1892, the Democrats, led by Grover Cleveland, managed to gain control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since before the Civil War. The Democrats looked like they were finally ascending back to the role as the major party in government. But their success hid some critical party divides. While every political party has its cleavages, the Gilded Age Democrats were attempting to merge support for immigrants and big city residents with rural southerners and segregationists.
The big issues of the day for the party were trade policy and whether to promote inflation in the form of the coinage of silver. Comparatively, the Republicans of the day had a unified policy front. A severe recession in 1893 helped split the party and crush its hopes. In 1894, the Democrats lost 116 in the House and five in the Senate. In 1896, they lost the presidency, and except for the brief time when the Republicans split helped elect Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats were effectively completely out of power until the Great Depression hit.