House Overview: What’s In Play?

by Stuart Rothenberg November 15, 2011 · 9:34 AM EST

Aside from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) prediction to ABC News back in early June that her party had “a very good chance of winning the House,” national Democrats have been cautious about predicting a takeover next November.

That’s the way it should be, of course, given that redistricting has yet to be completed and considering President Barack Obama’s job performance ratings.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), for example, has talked only about “putting the House in play,” a far lower ­— ­and more reasonable — bar.

With redistricting maps either still not completed or pending legal review in some key states — including Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — the playing field for the fight for the House may not be finalized for months.

The initial Texas map, which is now going to trial, gives three of the state’s four new districts to the GOP. The Republican-

dominated Florida Legislature has yet to produce a new map, a task made more complicated by a new state law that restricts GOP options.

Considerable redistricting-generated gains in just two states, Illinois and California, could give Democrats about 10 seats, possibly a few more. New lines in Arizona, Maryland, Nevada and Washington are likely to produce additional Democratic gains. Obama will run quite well in most of these states.

But redistricting already has or is likely to cost Democrats seats in Georgia (Rep. John Barrow), Michigan (Rep. Gary Peters), Missouri (Rep. Russ Carnahan), Massachusetts, North Carolina (Reps. Larry Kissell and Brad Miller and possibly Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre), and possibly Pennsylvania. Open seats in Arkansas (Rep. Mike Ross), Oklahoma (Rep. Dan Boren) and Indiana (Rep. Joe Donnelly) are also going to be very difficult for the party to hold.

Those Democratic losses, combined with new Republican districts created by GOP-controlled legislatures in Utah, Georgia and South Carolina, almost completely offset Democratic redistricting gains.

That means that to retake the House, Democrats must knock off as many as two dozen Republican incumbents who are seeking re-election. That’s possible, but it’s a big number, particularly without a huge partisan wave.

Last year, a stunning 54 incumbents were defeated (52 Democrats and two Republicans), and in the 1994 Republican wave, 34 House Democrats lost their bids for re-election. But in the 2006 Democratic wave, only 22 House Republicans were defeated, and two years later, in a smaller Democratic wave propelled by open-seat Democratic victories, another 14 House Republicans (and five Democrats) were defeated.

Large waves usually happen in presidential election years only when times are bad and when one party holds both the presidency and Congress. Under those conditions, it is easy for voters to assign blame completely to one party. The worse the public’s mood, the more unpopular the sitting president, and the larger the majority’s numbers in Congress, the bigger the potential turnover in the House.

While Republicans currently hold 242 seats — their largest number since the 80th Congress (1947-1949) — their risk is limited by redistricting, by Democratic control of the Senate and the White House and by the president’s poor standing in public opinion polls.

Obama’s job approval has been stuck in the low to mid-40s, and most Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. That creates a difficult environment for Democratic Congressional candidates, who in many districts will need to separate themselves from the president while at the same time try to motivate core Democratic constituencies that are sticking by him.

Democratic strategists crow about their candidate recruiting and about opportunities in districts that Obama carried three years ago, and they certainly do have some strong recruits.

But the president isn’t likely to replicate his 2008 numbers, and in many states Republicans have solidified potentially vulnerable House Members, thus limiting the number of opportunities that Democrats will have.

Silly polls conducted by partisan pollsters for partisan groups notwithstanding, history suggests that the president’s party is more vulnerable during difficult economic times.

Of course, if the White House and Democratic campaign strategists can shift the focus of the election away from Obama and onto the Republican Party, it’s possible that House Democratic candidates could avoid some of the blame they now seem sure to get.

Based on district fundamentals and Democratic recruiting to date, the list of most vulnerable Republicans — apart from those already counted because they have been endangered by redistricting — includes Reps. Charles Bass and Frank Guinta in New Hampshire, Steve King in Iowa, Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland, David McKinley in West Virginia, Joe Heck in Nevada and Sean Duffy in Wisconsin.

Democrats hope to oust Republicans in Colorado (Reps. Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner), Minnesota (Rep. Chip Cravaack), Arkansas (Reps. Tim Griffin and Rick Crawford), Virginia (Rep. Scott Rigell) and Florida as well.

Of course, Republicans hope to offset any losses of their incumbents with defeats of a handful of Democratic incumbents. They cite Iowa’s Leonard Boswell, California’s John Garamendi and Lois Capps, Utah’s Jim Matheson and New York’s Bill Owens as examples.

Although the amount of 2012 political chatter makes it feel as if we are about to approach the home stretch of the campaign, we haven’t had a single primary or even entered the year of the election. It’s still 2011, if you hadn’t noticed.

No, that hasn’t stopped the spinners from spinning, but it should mean that most of us understand that the cycle’s political environment hasn’t fully formed and that events over the next 10 months will tell us a great deal about where the voters will place blame and who will represent the face of the GOP (i.e., the Republican nominee for president).

At this point, with redistricting still up in the air in key states, Democrats appear positioned to gain House seats, but not all that close to the 25 seats they would need to regain a majority in the House.

Democrats need some breaks in the final redistricting states, some additional recruits and almost certainly a shift in the national political environment to improve their chances of winning back the House. For as we have seen over the past three elections, even smart, well-funded candidates running quality campaigns can’t win in a tough political environment.