WASHINGTON – Unforeseen events and dramatic moments can wreak havoc with political forecasts. Talk of a “blue wave” dominated discussions about the midterm elections until the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings woke up the Republican base. Suddenly House races that favored Democrats tightened and toss-up Senate races in red states began to trend toward the Republican candidate.

Now another series of unforeseen events is changing the dynamics. The package mail bombs sent by a Trump supporter to prominent Democrats followed by the massacre of eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue have changed the national conversation. President Trump’s favorability ratings dropped four points in a week back down to the low 40s. There is turmoil and ugliness in the country and Republicans are in control. Voters are again considering whether to elect Democrats as a check on the excesses of a divisive President and a supplicant Congress. 

The inevitable question, then, is: Do Trump’s falling favorable numbers mark the return of the blue wave? 

Four former U.S. House members gathered at a forum hosted last week by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to discuss wave elections. Of the four former members participating — Jim Blanchard from the Watergate class of 1974, Marjorie Margolies of the “Year of the Woman” class of 1992, Tom Davis of the “Republican Revolution” class of 1994, and Ann Marie Buerkle of the huge Republican class of 2010 — only Blanchard sensed that he was part of a wave before the votes were counted. Margolies, who won an open seat in the Philadelphia suburbs by just 1,373 votes, remarked that she was completely surprised she even won.

All four agreed that a pick up of 35 or more seats in the House would constitute a wave, although they split on partisan lines in their predictions as to whether Democrats would take control at all. Blanchard, who was elected governor of Michigan in 1982, predicted a Democratic pick-up of 40 while Margolies predicted a margin of 50 seats.

Blanchard pointed to the LBJ landslide of 1964 as proof that wave elections can make a critical difference in the direction of the country. Landmark legislation including Medicare, Medicaid, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Freedom of Information Act were all made possible by the wave election of 1964 that gave Democrats a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

Among the notable freshman in that 1964 class was Indiana’s Lee Hamilton, one of the most respected and thoughtful members to have served in Congress.  Hamilton has remarked that he too was surprised to have been a part of a wave when he defeated Republican incumbent Earl Wilson by a little more than 12,000 votes. Hamilton has added that the votes he cast that first year he served in 1965 were the most significant ones during his entire 34-year career in the House.

Another beneficiary of an election year wave was Phil Hayes of Evansville who defeated incumbent Roger Zion in the 1974 Watergate election that gave Democrats a net gain of 49 seats. In an interview, Hayes said he decided to run for Congress in early 1973 as the Watergate scandal began to bubble up and the Vietnam War continued to drag. “It was obvious that this (Watergate) was going to get bigger. But I also saw it as a personal opportunity.” At the time, Hayes served as a state Senator in an at-large district that represented 40% of the 8th district population. In addition, while in the Senate, Hayes had achieved a strong legislative record, becoming involved in several high profile reform issues of the time, including co-sponsoring passage Equal Rights Amendment in Indiana.

Hayes, like Michigan’s Jim Blanchard, said he felt relatively confident he would win in the fall of 1974 after President Gerald Ford pardoned the disgraced former President Richard Nixon. “Republicans were in denial,” he said. “They were certain they could get by because they were raising five times the money we (Democrats) were.” Hayes said he won 54% to 46% because of the culture at that time. “Money wasn’t really a factor,” he said. “Local TV news coverage was important then, which isn’t the case anymore. Newspaper endorsements carried weight.”

Twenty-eight year old David Evans, a public school teacher, spent only $14,000 in knocking off incumbent 12-term incumbent William Bray in an Indianapolis area district in 1974. Evans, who had lost badly to Bray in 1972, decided immediately after losing that he would challenge Bray again. “That’s when I went full out and starting knocking on what would be 55,000 doors,” he said in an interview.

Evans said that the turning point in the campaign came three weeks before the election when the state Republican Party attacked him and his campaign for selling raffle tickets allegedly in violation of state law. The story ran on the front page of the Indianapolis Star and was covered on local television news. Evans rebuffed the attack by noting that congressional elections are governed by federal not state law. Evans said the story immediately boosted his name recognition, so much so that voters began calling out to him on the street, “Hey Dave, do you have any raffle tickets?” After the election, one Republican insider lamented that the GOP attack clearly backfired and cost them the seat. Evans garnered 52% to 48% for Bray, who had completely dismissed him as a serious challenger throughout the campaign.

Nearly all Democratic candidates running in the 1960s and early 1970s were influenced by the idealism of John and Robert Kennedy. In early 1960, Lee Hamilton agreed to hold a fundraising event in Columbus for a presidential candidate he admits he had not even heard of Sen. John F. Kennedy. Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, later joked to Hamilton that his was the worst event of the entire 1960 campaign. Despite the fundraising debacle, Hamilton was inspired by the young president to run for Congress four years later.

Dave Evans said JFK was his inspiration as well. “It was my ambition since high school in Shoals to be both a school teacher and to serve in Congress,” he said. Evans served four terms until the Republican controlled General Assembly gerrymandered him into a district with fellow Congressman Andy Jacobs. Jacobs would defeat Evans in the 1982 Democratic primary.

Reflecting on his motivation to run for office in the early 1970s, Phil Hayes pointed to Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Indiana presidential campaign when Hayes served as RFK’s Vanderburgh County coordinator. “Having a responsible position in a campaign like that was critical,” he said.  “Distributing petitions for Kennedy and managing the campaign in southwest Indiana, I was put in a one-on-one position with voters. I got to know constituencies, including union leaders and union members who were very important at that time.  Most of all, what I learned from Bobby Kennedy was not to be afraid in politics: don’t be afraid to say and do what you believe.”

That lack of fear may have contributed to Hayes’ decision after just one term to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Vance Hartke, whom many Democrats believed would be a drag on the ticket in 1976 “Hartke was already down by 20 points against Lugar when I decided to get in,” Hayes said. “I lost the primary against Hartke by just 5,000 votes, winning every county but two—Marion and Lake. I might have actually won those as well,” Hayes joked referring to their reputations at the time for manipulating election outcomes. Richard Lugar would defeat Hartke 59% to 40% in the 1976 general election. 

Hoosier Democrats gained five seats in 1974, one of the largest pickups of any state in the country. That is not remotely likely this year as only a couple of districts are being seriously contested.  Then again wave elections are called waves because they usually sweep into office candidates no one thought had a chance. 

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.