A Rough Estimate of the Current House Field

by Stuart Rothenberg January 20, 2012 · 2:12 PM EST

Contrary to what you see on television and cable news, there are other elections besides the presidential race this year. And for those who care about control of Congress, the picture there is starting to come into better focus.

Because of substantial redistricting gains in three large states — California, Illinois and Florida — Democrats are likely to make gains, possibly substantial gains, in the House. But these gains are not likely to be large enough to reach the 25 seats that Democrats need to regain a majority.

Nationally, Republicans have done a good job (where they have had the opportunity in redistricting) of solidifying their incumbents, including freshmen who were lucky to win because of the favorable dynamic of the 2010 midterm elections.

The result is that while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is trying to make the playing field bigger, it currently has only a limited number of good opportunities.

Could this change? Certainly. This assessment is only a rough estimate that is based on current conditions and a 50-state map that has not yet been finalized. Political and economic developments over the next few months could change this projection dramatically.

The economy has been showing signs of recovery in the past few months, and rising consumer confidence could well foretell an improving economic and jobs outlook, which in turn would improve the public’s mood and President Barack Obama’s standing.

An improving mood could help the president’s re-election, but it also could boost the prospects of all incumbents, including House Republicans.

Of course, Democrats still have a few arrows in their quiver, as the president showed when he proposed government consolidation in the Department of Commerce to achieve savings.

That proposal put Congressional Republicans in a box. If they refuse to give him the authority to consolidate government and save valuable dollars, they appear to be defending bloated government and bureaucracy. If they bow to the president’s request, they give him a victory and allow him to take credit for streamlining, shrinking government and helping the business community.

But the Democrats’ best hope for shaking up the 2012 elections — the selection of an unqualified or extreme presidential nominee by the GOP — seems increasingly remote.

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, Mitt Romney is a relatively safe choice for GOP Congressional candidates around the country. Democrats will paint the former Massachusetts governor in the most unflatteringly light, but it is unlikely that he will frighten voters or damage his party’s brand further than it has already been.

My state-by-state assessment of the House suggests Republicans have around 190 safe districts to the Democrats’ 165. That leaves roughly 80 competitive seats. If those races split evenly in November, not an unreasonable possibility at this point, Democrats would make gains in the low double digits, leaving them still about a dozen seats short of a majority.

However, the downside risk for Democrats seems larger than for Republicans, particularly if Obama’s numbers sink again and the election becomes a referendum on his performance.

Both parties can reasonably argue that some of the districts I haven’t projected to flip will. What kind of districts might Democrats win that I don’t give them in my current estimate?

In California, I have estimated that Democrats will beat either Rep. Brian Bilbray or Rep. Dan Lungren, but not both. The two Republicans have tough races and it’s certainly possible that Democrats could win both seats in November.

In North Carolina, I assume that three Democratic incumbents — Reps. Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler — lose in November. Kissell’s prospects are bleak, but McIntyre and Shuler, though they face difficult re-election contests, certainly could win.

In Pennsylvania, I assume that Democrats and Republicans split four competitive districts: the 6th district (Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach), 7th district (Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan), 8th district

(Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick) and 12th district (Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire/Mark Critz). It’s possible that Democrats could win three of those four districts, or even all of them.

In Florida, I assume that the current 19-6 Republican advantage becomes a more narrow 17-10 GOP advantage, meaning Democrats gain four seats. Democratic observers hope their party can gain as many as six districts, so additional Democratic gains in the Sunshine State can’t be ruled out.

In Illinois, I currently project the GOP’s 11-8 advantage turning into a Democratic advantage of 12-6. That would mean a Democratic gain of four seats and a Republican loss of five. It’s possible that Democrats could gain another seat.

There are plenty of other examples of places where Democrats could gain an additional seat beyond my current estimate. Democratic strategists believe that they can hold retiring Rep. Dan Boren’s Oklahoma district, while I’m very skeptical. They think they can win North Dakota’s open seat. I think it’s possible but unlikely, and I allocate the seat to the GOP in my current estimate.

But Republicans have an equally long list of states where they could argue that I gave Democrats the benefit of the doubt, including districts in all of the states I just mentioned.

In addition, my current estimate assumes that Rep. Jim Matheson (D) will hold onto his Utah seat and that the DCCC will beat one of three Republicans in Ohio — Reps. Bill Johnson, Bob Gibbs or Jim

Renacci. And I assume that New York’s delegation goes from seven Republicans and 22 Democrats to five Republicans and 22 Democrats.

Estimates at this point are, well, merely estimates. Whether Democrats will gain five seats or eight seats or even a dozen is a matter of opinion.

What really matters right now is orders of magnitude. Are Democrats most likely to gain in the single digits or low teens, or are they well enough positioned to pick up some number of seats in the high teens or even low 20s?

From my state-by-state assessment, the answer is pretty clear. Right now, Democrats ought to expect gains somewhere from the mid-single digits to the low double digits. That wouldn’t be a bad showing for the DCCC, though it probably isn’t where it would prefer to be.